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Porto: Professor Of Football

10/26/11 5:55PM By Brian Porto
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(Host)  The football season is in full swing, causing commentator Brian Porto to reflect on the life of an unusual man who was one of the most innovative coaches in college football history.

(Porto) In this era of celebrity coaches, it is easy to forget the coaches who labor in relative obscurity for a lifetime out of devotion to young people and to a sport. The death earlier this year of football coach Homer Smith reminded me that, despite its flaws, the sports world can still produce a talented and caring teacher.

Homer Smith coached big-time college football, mostly as an assistant specializing in offense, for nearly forty years. But intelligence, not longevity, distinguished him from his coaching brethren, and he used that intelligence to develop imaginative offensive schemes, most notably the wishbone formation, which transformed college football in the 1970s. As offensive backfield coach at UCLA, Smith employed the wishbone to great effect, as the Bruins led the nation in rushing, averaging 400 yards per game on the ground. Thus, it's no wonder that Bill Curry, Smith's former boss at the University of Alabama, called Smith "the best football coach I've ever seen." As a young man, Bill Curry played for several coaching giants, including the legendary Vince Lombardi, so his words carry considerable weight.

Tucson, Arizona sportswriter Anthony Gimino was similarly effusive about Homer Smith, calling him "one amazing professor of football." The professor of football, who held an undergraduate degree from Princeton and graduate degrees from Stanford and Harvard, respectively, published three books on his favorite subject, offensive football.

Perhaps the best indication of Smith's encyclopedic knowledge of football was a comment made shortly after his death by his former boss at the University of Arizona, Head Football Coach Dick Tomey. According to Tomey, "The day after [Homer] left our staff at Arizona [to retire in 1997], I assembled the staff and said to them, ‘we need to write down all that Homer taught us.' We were still writing two hours later."

Still, the real genius of Homer Smith is evident in the recollection of his son-in-law, Leamon Hall, who played quarterback at West Point in the mid-1970s, when Smith was the head coach there. "Since [Homer] died, "said Hall, "I've been hearing more from the second-string guys, and even guys who got cut - not the guys who were the creme de la crème - about how he influenced them and shaped their lives. Of course, coaching college football is all about wins and losses, but [Homer] found a way to subjugate that to building character in people." That sense of proportion was evident in Smith's decision to leave coaching temporarily in 1978 and to spend the next two years studying theology at Harvard instead.

I hope every high school football coach in Vermont and New Hampshire will read the books of Homer Smith and study his life. No more honorable profession exists than teacher-coach, and nobody better exemplified excellence in both roles than Homer Smith.
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