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Former Arizona offensive coordinator Homer Smith dies at 79

Homer Smith, the legendary college football offensive coordinator who spent his final two seasons of coaching at Arizona, passed away Sunday at the age of 79.

Smith had been battling cancer for several years.

Smith, widely regarded as having one of the greatest offensive minds of his era, earned his widest fame for his time as coordinator at UCLA and Alabama. He was also the head coach at Davidson (where he gave Dick Tomey his first coaching job), Pacific and Army.

Arizona fans remember him fondly, as his work as offensive coordinator in 1996 and 1997 set the stage for the Wildcats’ 12-1 season in 1998 after his retirement.

There must be a million of stories Homer Smith stories. There has never been anyone quite like him.

I will have some reflections and recollections on Smith later, but this Corky Simpson column from the Feb. 13, 1998, edition of the Tucson Citizen perfectly sums up the coach’s career:

Homer Smith was a philosopher shooing chickens out of the corn.

He was Heifetz playing bluegrass, Olivier in a TV sitcom, Paul Robeson calling hogs.

Homer was grossly overqualified to be a football coach, let alone somebody’s assistant.

The man was worthy of a higher calling – teacher or author or minister.

But come to think of it, he was all those things rolled into one amazing professor of football.

Now Smith, 66, is stepping down, retiring due to poor health, as the offensive coordinator at the University of Arizona.

And the corporate IQ of America’s football coaching profession just slipped several points.

The redoubtable Mr. Smith is ending a career that began in 1958 at Stanford.

A fullback on Charlie Caldwell’s fine Princeton teams of the early 1950s, Smith is the closest thing to “genius” the sport has, ever has had or probably ever will have.

He wrote the book, literally, on offensive football.

“Handbook for Coaching the Football Passing Attack,” “Installing Football’s Wishbone T Attack,” “A Complete Offensive Playbook” and many others came from his fertile mind.

His leaving UA is a serious personal loss to this sportswriter. Homer was one of my heroes.

One miserable day at Camp Cochise, the Wildcats preseason bivouac near Douglas, Homer and I were discussing over lunch, the relative merits of option football.

I asked him if the quarterback’s “read” and blocking assignments had changed much since the early years of the belly series, precursor to the wishbone, the veer and other option systems.

“Let me bring you something about that in the morning,” he said, leaving the table to go grab a nap before the next practice.

Next morning, he placed in my hands, 38 typewritten pages of the most beautiful prose ever produced on option football.

I treasure it as one would treasure a Winslow Homer sketch for an original seascape.

Dino Babers, 36, who coached UA’s running backs, will take over as the offensive coordinator. He has a tough act to follow.

Smith has earned retirement, if, indeed it takes, in the way a vaccination is supposed to take.

We first met many years ago when he was in the second of three separate terms as offensive coordinator at UCLA.

He was head coach about a hundred years ago at Davidson. It was there, as I recall, that he fired Dick Tomey not once, but twice.

Homer was the head coach at Army from 1974-78 after stints at Davidson and Pacific.

He has assisted at Stanford, Air Force, UCLA, the Kansas City Chiefs, Alabama (twice) and, for the past two seasons, at Arizona.

He holds degrees from Princeton, Harvard and Stanford.

Some coaches spend much of their careers screaming stupid clich├ęs, and repeating them until they wind up sad, comic imitations of themselves.

Smith, until the end of his career, had the burning curiosity of a child and it drove him to scientific methods of investigation, critical thought and common sense.

He didn’t coach against the grain, he invented the grain.

Homer is an introvert, a quiet man and the picture of the absentminded professor.

But push the right buttons and you can get hoarse listening to him talk football.

He is a no-nonsense kind of fellow who can be fussy about doing things properly.

He likes to quote Scripture in making a point, and he whittles his words as with a treasured old Barlow pocketknife.

We aren’t likely to see another Homer. He’s a fading breed, the gentleman-scholar-orator coach.

Homer Smith is one of the brightest human beings I have ever met. He was a coach who gave decency, perseverance, courage and honor a face.

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