Larry Smith still can’t watch a football game without X’s and O’s flying around in his head.
He coached his final game seven seasons ago and yeah, he misses it.
From Sept. 20, 1980, through Dec. 27, 1986, Smith coached 74 games at the University of Arizona. He won 48 of them, lost 23 and tied three.
He took the Wildcats to two bowl games but it would have been five or six, had the school not been under investigation and eventual NCAA probation for rules broken under the previous coaching staff.
Nine days ago, Smitty turned 68. He and his wife, Cheryl, both retired and living in Tucson, just returned from Ohio where Larry attended the 50th reunion of his graduating class at Van Wert High School.
Just in case some athletic director in need of a first-rate head coach calls him,Smith picked up a few pointers while sitting in the bleachers watching the Van Wert Cougars defeat Celina, Ohio, 34-13.
“My high school still plays in the same stadium where I played,” he said. “They tore down the school and built a new one on the edge of town, but they play on the same football field. They have a new coach and he lines ‘em up in a wing-T. . . then he switches to a full-house, wishbone set . . . he mixes it up and does a great job.”
Sure, Smitty misses it. Especially this time of the year.
“You miss the preparation and the games,” he said. “You miss the weekends – Fridays before the game, then game day and then Sundays, when you break down the tape.
“But most of all, you miss the kids. Just being around them every day makes you feel good. You know, you bring ‘em in and they’re so young, just puppies. Then you watch them grow.
“You see them get a little more serious about things when they’re sophomores. Then in their third and fourth years, you see them grow into young men. It’s like someone turns a light on in their head. That’s priceless, to a coach, watching the maturity process. People – fans – don’t see that part.”
The worst part, losing games, is something the fans do see. And along with the media, Smith says fans have become a lot more impatient.
“There was a time when, if you ran a clean program, stayed competitive and did a good job out in the community, people were behind you,” Smith said. “Job security wasn’t based so much on winning and losing as much as character and involvement. Now, because of big salaries and long-term contracts, it comes down to one thing:
In his seven years at UA, Smith never had more than a one-year contract.
“It bothered me because even if you deserved a little security, there was none,” he said. “But that was state law back then. It has changed now.”
Smith came to Tucson in 1973 as defensive coordinator under coach Jim Young. Smith moved to Tulane as head coach in 1976, where he turned around a woeful program and took the Green Wave to the Liberty Bowl.
He returned to Arizona as head coach in 1980. After taking the Wildcats to the Aloha Bowl in 1986 (they beat North Carolina, 30-21), Smith became head coach at Southern California. He won three Pacific-10 Conference championships at USC and had a 44-25-3 record.
He coached at Missouri from 1994-2000, taking the Tigers to the Holiday Bowl in 1997.
“USC was glitter and glamour, big games, great players and just a lot of fun,” Smith said. “Tulane was my first opportunity as a head coach. Missouri was an outstanding school with a lot of great fans.
“But UA was our dream job. And I’ll tell you what, the kids we had here worked harder and fought harder on that football field than any place I’ve been.”
Smith is engaged in a battle with leukemia. He said he “keeps it under control, although it’s the kind that’s never completely in remission.”
Corby and Ali, the Smith children, live in the Phoenix area.
“Corby is with a medical supply company,” Smith said. “He sells medical apparatus used in surgeries.”
Before he was hired, Corby was interviewed by Jeff Van Raaphorst and Nathan La Duke – two former Arizona State football players.
Corby and his wife, Jamie, have three boys, 8, 6 and 4. Ali, the Smith’s daughter, is a single mom with three children, a daughter, 8, and sons 4 and 2.
Smitty enjoys his job as analyst with Fox Sports television. But he said, “I’m probably more analytical than I need to be and I don’t provide enough color.”
The surge and thunder of the sport, the excitement and being around the players are stuff Smitty misses.
“But coaching has become such a ’24-7-365′ situation,” he said, “the pressure to win is so great and the fans and media so demanding, it really takes a toll on the coach today.”
And Smith, one of the most popular coaches in Arizona history, is content to be an “ex-X’s and O’s” guy, whose remembered joys are never really in the past.
Corky Simpson retired from the Citizen in December. He writes a column every Saturday