Homer Smith accomplished a lot in nearly 40 seasons as a football coach, mostly as an offensive coordinator for both the Alabama Crimson Tide and the UCLA Bruins. Smith worked in Tuscaloosa and Westwood on two separate occasions. In all four of those instances, Smith achieved richly.
He made the Rose Bowl in both of his stays at UCLA under head coach Terry Donahue, winning three times in the first go-round in 1983, 1984 and 1986. He reached the 1994 Rose Bowl but lost to Wisconsin. At Alabama, Smith helped head coach Bill Curry win the SEC and reach the Sugar Bowl in the 1989 season. Five years later, in 1994, he returned to Tuscaloosa and helped the Tide’s offense to produce a 12-1 season. Alabama’s one loss came to Florida, 24-23, in that year’s SEC Championship Game. Alabama finished one point from a perfect season and what would have been a split national championship with Nebraska and/or Penn State (in some form and to some degree).
Smith, as you can see, did more than merely “all right” as an offensive coordinator. From 1980 until he retired in 1996, Smith was at the center of the action in college football. Rose Bowls, Sugar Bowls, games brimming with conference significance and national resonance. Smith produced a career with considerable longevity and prosperity. He didn’t just stick around for a long time; he stuck around on teams and coaching staffs that got things done.
In many ways, then, the proving ground for Homer Smith – the period of time when he briefly tasted success and showed, to himself and others, that he could solve problems – was nowhere other than West Point. Yes, it was at Army that Homer Smith began his ascent in the college football world and developed his chops as a coach.
From 1973 through 1983 – 11 largely difficult seasons – Army turned in only one winning season, and only two seasons with more than four victories. The winning season came in 1977, and the five-win season came a year earlier, in 1976. Smith – who served as Army’s coach from 1974 through 1978 – started slowly and, in 1978, could not propel the program to a higher level, but in 1976 and ’77, Army definitely moved forward.
The groundwork for the 1977 was put in place in 1976. Army challenged itself on the schedule, taking on teams that were either flourishing or were not many years away from thriving. The Cadets played North Carolina, a program that is struggling today but was highly formidable in the latter half of the 1970s and the very early 1980s under head coach Dick Crum. The Cadets barely lost to the Tar Heels at home, 34-32, a game which marked a considerable degree of improvement under Smith. A week later, Army defeated Stanford, a result made notable by the fact that the Cardinal – though not quite there under coach Jack Christiansen – would receive a new head coach in 1977 and make the end-of-season AP Top 20. That new head coach? Bill Walsh.
In 1976, Army also played Penn State and Joe Paterno; a Boston College team that was consistently good in the 1970s and was ranked as high as No. 13 during the 1976 season; and, last but certainly not least, the Pittsburgh team that won the 1976 national title behind a running back named Tony Dorsett. Teams get better by playing the best, and on many levels, going 5-6 against a 1976 schedule marked a greater feat than going 7-4 against the team’s 1977 slate.
However, service academy programs play for the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy, and after winning the first CIC championship in 1972, Army managed to regain supremacy on this front in 1977.
The Cadets were better than Air Force in both 1976 and ’77, as the Falcons – coached by Ben Martin since 1958 – lost ground under the coach who took them to great heights. Martin reached the Cotton Bowl in the 1958 season, and 12 years later, he took Air Force to the Sugar Bowl. That 1970 season marks the last time a service academy has played in a prestigious New Year’s Day bowl game. In 1976 and 1977, though, Air Force fell into a deep rut, enough to make the school opt for a new head coach in 1978: Bill Parcells.
Beating Air Force wasn’t the big challenge for Army in 1977. Taking down Navy was. The Midshipmen enjoyed four very solid seasons from 1978 through 1981 under coach George Welsh, and from 1973 through 1976, the CIC Trophy resided in Annapolis. Navy won four of the first five CIC competitions, and in 1976, the Midshipmen cemented their latest conquest of the academies by blowing out Army, 38-10. If you were betting that Army could reverse the flow of results against Navy in 1977, you were making a bet which flew in the face of the evidence.
Yet, in the 1977 season finale, Army’s defense showed just how much it had grown. The Cadets limited Navy’s offense to only 14 points, making adjustments and playing with a seamless, integrated quality the 1976 defense couldn’t quite manage. The bowl landscape was a lot more limited in college football in 1977. Army’s first-ever bowl bid was still several seasons away. That said, when Army sealed that 17-14 win over Navy in 1977, the Cadets had succeeded beyond all expectations. Their 7-4 campaign felt like a bowl season, and their CIC triumph – cemented by the win over Navy – felt like a significant national achievement, especially in light of the tough times the program had endured the previous four seasons since the first CIC breakthrough in 1972.
The 1970s, as a whole, are not remembered fondly by fans and historians of Army football. The 1977 season, like 1972, is the exception that proves the rule. Homer Smith learned more about his abilities as a football coach, setting the table for more mountaintop moments in the next two decades of a rich football life.