Everyone knows the Robb Smith connection with Bret Bielema by now. Bielema was linebackers coach at Iowa when Smith served as quality control defensive grad assistant on the staff headed by Kirk Ferentz.
Bielema and Smith stayed close through the years eventually reuniting last year. Bielema hired Smith to be his defensive coordinator at Arkansas after one year as linebackers coach for Tampa Bay in the NFL.
It's fun to dip back into the resume links. The one that kept popping up with Smith took the search back to Maine where Jack Cosgrove replaced Ferentz as head coach in 1993. Cosgrove hired Smith on his defensive staff on recommendation from Ferentz. Smith then coached seven seasons for the Black Bears, eventually working his way up to defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
Smith is oh so proud of his connection to Cosgrove, possibly the most famous individual in the state of Maine. The 58-year-old Cosgrove is a fixture with the Black Bears. He played quarterback for four years starting in 1974. Except for two years as an assistant coach at Boston College, he's been at Maine ever since, the last 22 as head coach. He's been a part of over 300 games at Maine.
“I think if he wanted to, he could be elected governor of the state,” Smith said. “He's that big a deal in Maine.”
Cosgrove laughed about that line.
“I don't think so,” he said. “I don't have a political bone in my body.”
That was part of a 30-minute phone conversation as Cosgrove headed home from a Boston recruiting trip on a two-hour drive back to Maine. He was pleased to be asked for an interview concerning Smith, one of the many top coaches who have come through the Maine program.
“First, you have to understand that Maine is a unique place,” Cosgrove said. “With our location, you realize that we are not just down the street. We don't have a great budget and not a lot of resources period. Because of that, we have to cycle coaches through here. It's just a by product of where we are and what we have.”
That's not to say it's not a great place to work.
“I tell coaches when they come here, you are not going to make money here,” Cosgrove said. “But you are going to learn how to make money.”
Smith is a perfect example. He made $50,000 when he left Maine after seven years on Cosgrove's staff. He signed a contract at Arkansas last week for $750,000.
“I reminded Smitty of what he made here last week,” Cosgrove said, who noted there are not many weeks they don't communicate by text or phone call.
“We keep up with each other. My wife keeps up with Robb's wife, Amy, on Facebook. We know what they are doing weekly. We know about the baseball games for the boys. I was excited when Marilyn, my wife, showed me that their boys were playing tackle football this year. We have a good working knowledge of what is going on in their lives, the entire family.
“And, it's a great family. Amy is a great person. Marilyn was very close to Amy here. I will say this about Robb, he's a really good coach, but he's also a great man and we love the family. I know Bret feels the same way. Bret came here to see them in Maine a couple of times and you could see how close they were to each other.”
Smith recently acquired a Maine Black Bear helmet to place on a shelf at home alongside helmets from his other stops at Rutgers and Tampa Bay.
“I loved it there,” Smith said. “I learned so much. It was a great opportunity for me. I was just a kid when I got there. Coach Cosgrove taught me a lot and allowed me to grow as a coach.”
Cosgrove said it was an easy hire after Ferentz called.
“I worked for Kirk here at Maine,” Cosgrove said. “I leaned a lot on Kirk and we listened when he called about Robb.”
Smith coached the secondary for three years at Maine, then moved to linebackers and special teams for one year before serving the last three years as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
“We had arguably the best defense in the history of our program under Robb,” Cosgrove said. “We led FCS in rushing defense and were second in total defense.”
So it was not a surprise for Cosgrove to see both Rutgers and Arkansas come together on defense with Smith as coordinator.
“It's really neat for me to see them have success,” he said. “I liked to turn on TV and watch Rutgers and I like watching Arkansas.”
They talked last spring when Smith was inheriting a defense with zero continuity. He was the fourth defensive coordinator in four years.
“I was telling Smitty that when I became head coach at Maine that I was the fourth in six years,” Cosgrove said. “Now, I've been here 22 years. It was a lot of recycling coaches. It sounds like Maine football there.”
There could be no better place to learn football than Maine.
“It is incredibly challenging here,” Cosgrove said. “It's not just where we are, but our conference. It's like we are the SEC of the FBS. And, Rob was part of some championship teams here. We've done well. Over the last 15 years, we've won the third most in our league.”
Cosgrove recognized the characteristics that Bielema described when he introduced him as Arkansas defensive coordinator.
“What you noticed right away as a young secondary coach in 2002, he was enthusiastic, had a great work ethic and was going to roll up his sleeves to get things done,” Cosgrove said. “Robb was working with Rich Nagy, a very good coordinator. I hoped Robb would learn from him, and he did. Then, he passed along knowledge to Joe Rossi, now the defensive coordinator at Rutgers.”
Cosgrove remembers the day Smith came to him to suggest hiring Rossi.
“Robb came to me and asked if we could bring in Joe,” Cosgrove said. “He was a Division III coach in Pennsylvania. They had the same Pittsburgh roots.
“I told him, unless he comes in here and spits in my face at the interview, he's hired. I thought that much of Robb's recommendation. I didn't care if he was DIII. And, we've just had that next-guy-in mentality with our staff and it's gone well.”
Cosgrove knew Smith would be snapped up by a bigger school. In fact, he wishes that for all of his assistants.
“It's the way it works here,” he said. “I know that. It was kind of funny. Before he got the Rutgers job, there was an opening the year before at South Florida for a linebackers spot with Jim Leavitt. That's part of his Iowa background.
“But Robb was real timid about talking to me about that job. I found out and went to him. I told him he had to look into it. I wanted him to. That's how it works. He didn't get it, but then the Rutgers job happened. I was happy for him. He was nervous I'd be offended, but that was never the case.”
Cosgrove likes what he sees in the Arkansas defense when he watches on TV.
“I'm not going to say they are exactly like what we did here because I think every team is different,” Cosgrove said. “Robb is going to look at his personnel and design things that fit what they can do. If you have corners who can cover, you probably are more comfortable calling a blitz. It's going to be designed year to year based on players.
“Obviously, Robb is good at game planning. We all know that. But he really coaches fundamentals. They are going to tackle well. You have to coach tackling and he does.
“I think his great attribute is that he's passionate and emotional in the way he coaches. He's able to make his passion for the game known to the players. He can bring tears to his own eyes when he speaks about the game.”
Smith tells of getting pulled over by the New Jersey State Police while driving Cosgrove on a recruiting trip.
“I was explaining my love of the game,” Smith said. “I think I was speaking with my hands and I lost control and maybe swerved a few times. Next thing I know, I'm getting stopped by the trooper.”
It could have been any number of trips, Cosgrove said.
“That sounds about right,” he said. “Robb can get going. I wish you could see his pre-game talks to the defense. They are special. And he speaks with sincerity.
“The guy loves what he does. You are not going to find a better work ethic and there is great personal discipline in his approach.
“What I can tell you, I know how the Arkansas staff works from knowing Robb. It's easy to see in the way that defense plays. He's got the whole makeup, what college coaching should be about.”
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