Remembering Coach Homer Smith
Homer Smith is the only football coach I've ever known who I would have been not surprised to see had the Harvard Classics at hand. (My mother had that magnificent set, and now I do, but the difference between Coach Smith and me is that I suspect he had read them.) He's also the only person I've ever known who had degrees from Princeton (where he was a great football player), Stanford, and Harvard.
The last time I visited in his home was to get his help on a book I was writing – "Game-Changers: The Greatest Plays in Alabama Football History." The original premise was that the book would consist of 50 plays, and I had selected three from games in which Coach Smith was involved. Later the publisher decided to spend more space (and more photographs) on fewer plays, and so 35 survived.
I had gone to his home to discuss plays from two games for which Homer Smith is most remembered and another that has been an Alabama staple under various coaches. The first was when he worked under Bill Curry in 1989 and found his offense trying to dig out of a 21-0 hole against Ole Miss midway through the first quarter in Jackson. The second was an epic battle under Gene Stallings when Georgia came to Tuscaloosa in 1994. The third play was the "Whoopee pass" as used by Gary Hollingsworth to Siran Stacy against Tennessee. The Georgia game made the book, but the comeback against Mississippi and the Utah pass (as almost everyone else calls it) did not.
If Homer Smith had any football reference books, they were not in evidence. He told me his library was used primarily to prepare the lesson for the Sunday School class he taught. On football he worked from memory.
Many are probably remembering those games and Homer Smith today. On Sunday he died at home after a long battle against a foe tougher than those he ever had to scheme against in football. He lost his fight against cancer. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Friday at Tuscaloosa First United Methodist Church.
The 1989 game in Jackson was astounding from start to finish. Partly because of Bama mistakes on offense and in the kicking game, the Rebels had a 21-0 lead before some fans had made it to their seats. Quarterback Gary Hollingsworth got the Tide rolling though. How about to the tune of 62 consecutive points? Ole Miss scored again late, went for two, and didn't make it. Final score: Alabama 62, Mississippi 27, with Hollingsworth throwing an Alabama record five touchdown passes.
I once mentioned to Homer, many years after the fact, that in the press box the over-under on when Curry would be replaced was Monday. Smith didn't laugh. Or smile.
The Tennessee game was one in which a Vols linebacker gave little tailback Murry Hill an all-time cheap shot, knocking Hill out of the game early. Enter Siran Stacy, who had a game for the ages, including four touchdowns and 317 all-purpose yards, both Tide records. Hollingsworth completed a record 32 passes, one a 75-yard touchdown whoopee to Stacy.
It did not surprise me that Smith had learned the play from Jack Curtice at Stanford. Curtice had perfected the play at Utah, thus its name.
It also didn't surprise me that the main thing Smith remembered from the game was that he was scheming against Ken Donahue, the longtime Bama defensive mastermind who was then at Tennessee.
The Georgia game was one in which Jay Barker out-dueled Eric Zeier, a 29-28 Bama win in which Barker's long passes to Toderick Malone allowed the Tide to comeback and be in position for Michael Proctor's game-winning field goal.
It was my pleasure to bump into Homer on a regular basis since he elected to retire in Tuscaloosa. We occasionally met on the range at the golf course, hitting practice balls and talking football.
Prior to the 2009 season he said he was worried about playing a quarterback with no experience. I told him word from the practice field was that Greg McElroy was coming along very well.
Homer seemed skeptical.
At the end of the 14-0, national championship season, I reminded Homer of the pre-season conversation.
"He was great," Smith said of McElroy. "And his coach was great, too."
Takes one to know one.
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