Friday, September 25, 2009

Coach Al Smith

Published: September 25, 2009 and shown here courtesy of the Register & Bee (Danville, Virginia). Photo courtesy Traci White, article Jason Wolfe

Al Smith trudges down the field, policing the Averett University sideline with the same cool, no-nonsense demeanor he’s displayed in each of the last 10 seasons.

“As he comes walking down that sideline you’ll see kids just, whew, they’ll jump out of his way,” wide receivers coach Max Roach said about Smith, an Army veteran and former Danville Police captain, “because they know if he’s coming down and you’re standing in his way, you’re not where you’re supposed to be.”

Smith, a specialists coach who works with the kickers, punter and long snappers, is the only member of the Averett football program who has been with the team from its inception in 2000 to where it is today, as the Cougars prepare for their 10th home opener, a homecoming game against Washington & Lee on Saturday. The part-time coach has experienced the trials and tribulations associated with starting a collegiate football program from scratch as he’s helped guide the Cougars through the years, from the highs of a conference championship through the lows of a winless season.

Smith, 66, is a relatively quiet and unassuming gentleman, especially compared to the barking coaches and bulked up young men whizzing around him during Averett practices and games. Sweat runs down his wrinkled brow following a humid day of practice earlier this week, but he can’t help but flash an enormous grin.

“I just like being with the kids,” Smith said, his words slowly drawn out. “I just wished I could have put more time into it than what I have, because when you’re working with a football team and you’re developing them to work as a team, you’re also developing them for life.”

Smith shares the same vibrant gleam in his eyes as Roach, a man 40 years his junior who can relate first-hand knowledge of the kind of effect Smith has on those fortunate enough to call him coach, because Roach punted for Smith for three seasons in the early years of the Averett program.

“He’s someone that you can come to who wasn’t going to be a screamer and yeller, but someone that’s going to get the best out of you by constantly working on your technique and also being there,” Roach said. “And now getting a chance to coach with him … you’re on the same level, but really between Coach Smith and I nothing much has really changed, because he was always that level-headed type of guy that you could talk to no matter what the situation.”

Averett head coach Mike Dunlevy, a former special teams coach in the World League who has guided the Cougars for eight seasons, explained why Smith’s steady demeanor and coaching style is vital to the team, especially considering the positions he coaches.

“Kickers are a different breed,” Dunlevy said. “He brings that ability the keep those kickers calm, focused on what they need to do. You get into a linebacker, you may yell at him and get after him and those kind of things, but that’s not really how you coach kickers, and Al has that temperament of being able to instruct but still be a strong leader…

“He understands hard work, dedication, trust. Being a Danville police detective and being in the military, he understands structure and how things have to be run, and that’s really how football needs to be run, is that same regiment and making sure your guys are on time and well disciplined.”

Smith retired in 2005 after 38 years with the Danville Police Department, where he was promoted as high as the rank of captain. And prior to his law enforcement career, he spent 18 months overseas with the Army, being discharged shortly before the start of the Vietnam War.

But even with those heady responsibilities throughout his life, he’s found ways to stay close to the game he loves, the game of football.

He played at Cobb Memorial High in Caswell County, N.C., which merged with the present-day Bartlett Yancey, and attended Lee-McRae College, where he kicked for the Bobcats from 1961-62 before transferring to Averett, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree.

Smith went on to coach special teams at George Washington High for 16 years before being contacted by Averett’s first coach, Frank Fulton, who inquired about Smith’s interest in joining the upstart program.

“Of course I saw that as a challenge,” Smith said.

“We started the program and after some time, a couple of years, the players started believing in it and some school spirit and support from the school and some things started picking up,” he said. “There were a lot of players coming in, and it kept progressing each and every year. I think we have accomplished a great deal at this school in 10 years, with the program from nothing to what we have right now.”

Smith has prided himself on helping players build relationships while teaching them discipline, teamwork and dedication. His police and military background have also proved a boon for the team in many ways. He’ll occasionally regale the players with war stories or demonstrate “crazy police holds,” Roach said, like how to take a man down by simply grabbing his wrist.

But he’s also always good for advice as far as what not to do, where not to go and instilling in the players a sense that they’re always representing the university.

“He’s one of those guys that doesn’t say a lot,” Dunlevy said, “but when he does say something it’s usually meaningful.”

Prior to his retirement, Smith’s law enforcement career provided a challenge at times, as far as juggling his responsibility to the community while still helping coach. And as a member of the Pittsylvania County Community Emergency Response Team, there’s still always the possibility that he’ll need to bolt from the sidelines.

But even in a part-time capacity, Smith has unquestionably provided a tremendous influence on kids’ lives over the years while helping guide the Averett football program from its infancy through its first decade of existence.

“All of the kids, you see them come in as young and right out of high school, and four years later, oh, they have changed. And for the better,” Smith said. He chuckles. “Obviously the wins are good. Seeing the program and understanding a higher level of football than high school, and seeing the kids coming in and seeing them develop and seeing them become a cohesive team, instead of individuals, really has been the highlight.”