When the Falcons announced that Mike Smith would be their next head coach, the news didn’t break out under big black headlines. Nor did it set off a wail of sirens around town. Nobody knew what to expect, except that after the wretched ship-jumper, Bobby Petrino, Mike Smith could only be a step upward.
Mike Smiths come in all shapes and forms. Wrestlers, boxers, sprinters, teachers, bankers, jockeys, auto racers, and yes, coaches. This Mike got any early start. After breaking a leg in high school in Daytona Beach, he talked his way on the coaching staff at the age of 18, and for the most part, has been at it ever since. He’s now 48, though his snow-capped peak might suggest a few years more. There’s a certain solidness about him that goes with his countenance.
After Petrino’s deception, the Falcons had struck rock bottom. Nowhere to go but up, and this time Arthur Blank, the owner, went back to square one. He hired a new general manager to start. Thomas Dimitroff had been an important cog in the machine that put the New England Patriots in championship motion. It was a name that stood out, matching his dossier, but generally unknown to headline chasers. Then Dimitroff hired Smith, and as when Vince Dooley was hired at Georgia in a chorus of “Vince Whos?” years ago, it was natural that the immediate reaction was “Mike who?” Or, which Mike Smith?
Mike had functioned under the radar most of his career. His college was East Tennessee State. No glitz and glitter there. He backed up the line and still holds the school record for most tackles. (It won’t be broken. East Tennessee has dropped football). Once he got into career coaching, he never got off the blue highways, from San Diego State to Morehead State to Tennessee Tech, and eventually the door to the NFL opened.
A close associate at San Diego was Brian Billick, who had moved into the NFL. He hired him at Baltimore. Then, Dimitroff found him at Jacksonville, and thus the plot thickened. Most of us put our hands on our tummies, sat back and waited for developments. See what plain Mike Smith could do where so many had failed, from Norb Hecker to Norm Van Brocklin to Dan Henning. Harsh as this sounds, there has never been a flukier Super Bowl contender than the “accidental” Falcons of ’99.
Mike Smith was probably just the kind of coach that Matt Ryan needed, too, coming in as a raw rookie. First-round draft choice while thousands clamored for a high-rated tackle from LSU, Glenn Dorsey. Smith and Ryan were a perfect fit. Mike could wind up coach of the year, and Ryan surely will be rookie of the year. For those who have watched as the Blank Regime fired and fell back, this is a jewel in the first-time owner’s crown, and one to applaud. And basically, what it required was a plain and everyday kind of man with the plain and everyday kind of name of Mike Smith to bring it all together on the playing field.