On Feb. 1, 1979, Smith entered Harvard's 350-student divinity school.
The Harvard Yard in April of 1979 appeared hard and cold in an unrelenting early spring sunlight. A couple of blocks down from the University Bookstore, the Smiths welcomed a visitor into their second-floor apartment in a chocolate-colored house built around 1860. The flat was full of polished wood and soft carpet. Titles from Solzhenitsyn to Michener were on view, along with a number of obscure-looking texts. Smith's classes for that semester were: Religion in China, Toward a Christian Understanding of God, The Essentials of Islam and Religion Under Communist Rule. "I've studied as though I was starved for it," he said. "The desire has grown to the point that now I shudder when I think I might not have done it."
Smith has always had some of the attributes of an effective clerical speaker—a sincerity of voice, a habit of coming down hard on key words. "Part of my being absorbed in this has to do with how shattering it is to lose one's career," he said. "I almost had to make this kind of plan, to lose myself. But beyond that, I'm fascinated by conflict, especially the unnecessary nature of so much of it. For example, I just took some cookies down to a Muslim social hour, to some people who'd helped me prepare a report on Islam. I was impressed again by the harmony that seems so natural among worshiping people. How we get from that to conflict is my area of interest. In the end, I hope that my transcript will show at least one course from each of the many areas of worship."
Smith was the careful academic, making only one point at a time, cautiously building his case. "Human beings are going to worship," he said, citing the constancy of religious observance in places where it is discouraged. "And it follows that since people are so similar during worship, whatever the liturgy or tradition, that worship itself is a great common...if not bond, then irreducible fact. It's when you mix it with politics that things get complicated. I don't believe, for example, that this nation can lead, as it has in the past, by backing people down. The world cannot keep putting $550 billion a year into preparations for war. Another approach must be to dissolve those differences that have religious formulations, to drain the hate out of them, to just keep saying we've got to get along, we've got to understand each other until we collapse from exhaustion."
Smith found the Divinity School itself "unexpectedly humble. I am with brilliant people who possess daring minds, but the courses are pursued with a Christian sense of humility."
Such a frame of mind, the guest ventured, might not come easily to that symbol of authority, the football coach. Smith grinned. "I'm trying to shed a little ego here. Ego is time-consuming and can be blinding, and there is no doubt that coaching football nurtures one's ego. It's tied to the kind of individual who succeeds, the bold, aggressive man who can live in that pressure focus. My strategy is to study every day, to accept what comes and ease away from that part of me that puts me in conflict with other people. What we talk about here is real worship, not rituals or hierarchies or dogma, but worship, the common denominator in the mystery of God, and shared, even if it seems only wonder at what we don't understand. I don't want to conflict with another man in that."
The visitor departed thinking that Smith wasn't so far from restoring order in his own soul and from being ready to work for understanding across lines of belief. An offensive coach indeed.
Throughout his time at Army and then at Harvard, Smith talked on the phone, as coaches will, with Donahue, who had become UCLA's head coach in 1976. Soon after Smith arrived at Harvard, Donahue planted the seed for Smith's return to football. On Feb. 25, 1980 Smith took a leave of absence from divinity school and returned to Los Angeles, buying a house in Woodland Hills, 17 miles from the UCLA campus. Kathy followed in April. "It was partly a matter of finances," he says. "And partly because the idea grew in me. There was a deep need to get back on the field."
Donahue, for one, was ecstatic. "When I knew I had a chance to get him back here, it was one of the most exciting days of my coaching career," he says. A boyish man, Donahue is purposefully informal. "Homer has lifted my burden in that I know the game plan will be done with the same attention to detail as if I did it myself. That's freed me to be more of a head coach, to see to player problems, to put up with the press."
Smith has said that the UCLA program might be the only one in the country where a strong-willed former head coach of 49 would be welcome as an assistant to a coach of 36. "It is like all relationships between capable men," says Donahue. "It has its tensions, but whenever Homer lets me know I've screwed up—do you notice that we talk differently?—he does it so artistically that it's never a challenge to me. I'm learning."