At practice's end, the Bruins' faces, Smith's included, show a flushed, unguarded unity of purpose. Back in his small, functional office Smith is still breathless, animated. "It takes a while to come down from practice," he says. "I get all juiced up." It seems a physical love. "It is a fierce kind of joy I have in teaching," he says. "Seeing a skill I've helped develop taken into a fight, seeing it used with courage, that's addicting. You crave more of it."
Of Smith, Donahue has said, "He's the best teacher I've ever seen in football. There's an air about him, made up of his education, his command of the language, his character. I've seen players sitting in his presentations almost awestruck."
With his joy in it and his excellence at it, Smith seems born to be a coach of football, and for 22 years that's what he was. But in February 1979, after leaving the head coaching position at Army under difficult circumstances, Smith entered Harvard Divinity School and embarked upon a two-year course of study that will lead to a masters degree in theological studies. His stay at UCLA is temporary. How he reached his decision to veer away from coaching, and how he'll use his studies are best understood by examining the whole of his life, which in its recent stages is not so much an odyssey as a purgatorio, a tempering.
Smith spent his childhood in Omaha, where his father ran a Ford dealership. It is still managed by a brother, Roy. His other brother, Dean, was a 9.6 sprinter for Stanford. A good student—"though football was all I thought about from the seventh grade on"—Smith went to Princeton, where he was president of his class in his sophomore, junior and senior years, captained the football team and in 1952 and 1953 was named All-East and All-Ivy League at single-wing fullback. For two years after graduation he was an Army artillery officer at Camp Chaffee, Ark. and then earned an M.B.A. at Stanford. He remained in Palo Alto through January 1961, as freshman football coach and director of recruiting, before going to the Air Force Academy, where he was both a defensive and an offensive back-field coach. His first head coaching job was at Davidson in 1965, and he took the Wildcats to the Tangerine Bowl in 1969. He spent two years coaching University of the Pacific, and two more as an assistant to Pepper Rodgers at UCLA, during which time the Bruins' record was 17-5. There Smith worked with a young line coach named Donahue. In 1974 Smith got the assignment at West Point. "In all honesty," he says, "the honor of it was so immense, I couldn't truly believe I was the head coach of the United States Military Academy."
The honor and the reality of the position were quite separate. In the years after Vietnam, West Point was no longer seen by many high school seniors to shimmer with the light of MacArthurian duty. Besides, height and weight regulations and the five-year service commitment that must be undertaken by every cadet further complicated the recruitment of prime football talent. And once mustered, the Army team had as little time for practice as any in the land.
Army's alumni, as one might imagine, aren't the most passive or accepting of men. The result is enormous pressure on the coach to win, regardless of the Point's football handicaps. "I always had within myself a fair acceptance of the risk," says Smith, "an understanding of the reasons why football coaches are always being fired for the wrong reasons."
More difficult to accept were disruptions such as four players' involvement in the Academy-wide honor-code violations of 1976 and a written ultimatum to Smith from the top brass that required seven victories in 1977, including one over Navy, for him to keep his job. The team went 7-4 and beat Navy 17-14, "but that just postponed things," says Smith. After that season he was given only a one-year contract.
West Point has a peculiarly divided chain of command when it comes to football. Thus, Smith was powerless in 1977 when Army officials took all recruiting responsibilities away from his civilian offensive and defensive coordinators.
Yet, what most disturbed Smith were practices which he felt were contrary to NCAA regulations. Smith has copies of memos he wrote to Athletic Director Raymond P. Murphy, who is no longer at the Point, Superintendent Lieut. General Andrew J. Goodpaster and Deputy Superintendent Brigadier General Charles W. Bagnal, setting down his "worry about being close to the law" and urging "exactitude" in compliance with the rules. In comparison to recent scandals in intercollegiate athletics, the offenses Smith felt had been committed, such as feeding extra meals to prospects who came to West Point for physicals, telling B-squad coaches to recruit and not counting visits from prep school recruits against the NCAA-allowed number, seemed minor. The issue, however, was honor.
"The West Pointer is an indispensable figure in the defense and management of our country," says Smith. "You can't have the students under pressure to live up to that tough, tough honor code, where they pledge not to tolerate lying, cheating or stealing, without the institution itself being exact in its adherence to rules. I heard all this talk about honor and I was worried, because we were into things that were clearly illegal, and I simply wasn't in control."