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Remembering UA offensive coordinator Homer Smith: He enhanced the game

Homer Smith at UCLA in 1990.
Photo by Stephen Wade/Allsport

The Arizona Wildcats football team would be in the middle of practice when offensive coordinator Homer Smith would stop everything and look up.

Jets from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base would be streaking through the sky.

“He would point toward the sky, and say ‘That’s formation, that’s togetherness. That’s how we need to be on offense,’” quarterback Keith Smith remembered Monday.

“He would do this all the time, just totally stop practice. We would be like, ‘What is he doing?’ but at the same time, we knew what he was getting at. He was being a perfectionist. Everything in formation. Everybody coming together.”

It was almost as if he had planned for the jets to fly over during practice. He actually arranged for Air Force pilots to do that one time when he was at UCLA.

Homer Smith, a college football original, passed away Sunday in Alabama at the age of 79 after a battle with cancer.

A perfectionist is only one way to describe Smith. There are so many others.

Scholar. Theologian. Novelist. A nutty professor. Eccentric. A gentle soul.

It’s safe to say there has never been anyone like him in college football. Probably never will.

And when it comes to offensive football, he wrote the book. Several times.

He already was legendary when Dick Tomey hired him at Arizona after the 1995 season to overhaul an offense that had long been considered the Wildcats’ weakness.

Keith Smith was a freshman quarterback at Arizona in 1996.

“I would go into a meeting and he’s kind of on a whole other page,” Keith Smith said. “We would be done with our quarterbacks meeting and we would be like, ‘What’s going on?’ His intelligence level was so high.

“But he broke it down for us and simplified it for us. … Once you got used to it, it was easy to complete a lot of throws in that offense. I think I had a pretty good career because of that offense.”

Homer’s offensive personnel was young in 1996 and 1997, growing and learning. Smith retired after the 1997 season because of health reasons, but he had erected the launching pad for the 1998 team that went 12-1.

That offense featured quarterbacks Keith Smith and Ortege Jenkins, running backs Trung Canidate and Kelvin Eafon, receivers Jeremy McDaniel and Dennis Northcutt, tight end Mike Lucky and standout linemen such as Yusuf Scott, Edwin Mulitalo, Bruce Wiggins and Manu Savea.

The loaded 1998 team set schools records with 52 touchdowns and 416 points (both marks were broken by the pass-happy 2008 team).

“Even when he retired, we used the same terminology,” Keith Smith said. “When Coach (Dino) Babers took over, we still used Homer’s system.”

Homer Smith was a head coach at Davidson, Pacific and Army, and other stops included being the offensive coordinator at UCLA and Alabama (twice each) before arriving at Arizona.

Keith Smith has been corresponding with former UCLA quarterback Wayne Cook, who talked about how the coach would climb into a tree to spy on how his offense was doing.

Former UCLA quarterback David Norrie once told me that Homer one day snuck into a tree after practice, spotting that the players were goofing off as they practiced the exchange from center. Smith jumped down, startling his players and immediately chastising their sloppiness.

Keith Smith

Homer Smith insisted on a flawless exchange between center Bruce Wiggins and quarterback Keith Smith.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images Sport

“He was really big into the center-quarterback exchange,” Keith Smith confirmed.

“He would get on the ground to see what we were doing. You have to picture a guy, 64 years old, on his back, looking to make sure our hands are in the right place, screaming at stuff, so we didn’t fumble a snap. It all goes back to his details.”

I remember one time during an Arizona practice when the team managers were having trouble with the JUGS machine during receiver drills. They were unable to find the right speed and trajectory as they launched footballs through the spinning wheels of the machine.

Smith came over to offer advice.

“Gentleman,” he began, “you have to listen to the energy of the wheels.”

I’m not entirely sure what that meant and I can’t recall if it helped … but I’ve never forgotten it.

Homer just had a way with words.

And with a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Princeton, an MBA from Stanford and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard, Homer knew a few words. (I told my wife Monday night about Homer’s trio of degrees, and she replied, “He made that up.” Sounds that way, but it’s true.)

On the practice field, he wasn’t afraid to spew a few words that would be improper among the hallowed halls.

Homer once told me a story about a day when he was upset at UCLA quarterback Tom Ramsey.

“That looks like s—,” Smith told him.

“Be positive,” Ramsey responded.

“OK,” Smith said, “I’m positive that looks like s—.”

The last time I saw Homer Smith was in 1998 as he was packing up his office. He had printouts seemingly covering every flat surface — pages from a book he was working on about football clock management. He eventually got it published.

He also gave me a copy of his novel, “A Game to Play.” It’s a story of football, race and love set in the south. I read it. It was, of course, good.

I pulled it down from the bookshelf yesterday and cracked it open for the first time in perhaps a decade.

Homer’s overly kind inscription to me read:

“For Anthony, whose good cheer and talented pen enhanced the game. Homer.”

The enhancing was all his.

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