Northwestern Connection II - Roland Smith

After leaving the University of Miami, Roland Smith would be drafted by the hometown Dolphins in the eighth round of the 1991 draft. By 1992, the young man who had used his recruiting trips to see the world, would be in the heart of Europe, playing for the London Monarchs in the World League.

"It was a tremendous experience for me," said Smith of his time overseas." At first I was saying, 'Wait, this is the first time in my life and I played football all my life, I never had to stay in another part of the state to play ball' Professionally, I was here, high school and college. But when I went to London I was in shock. But when I got there I really enjoyed it.

"I couldn't have been in a better situation if I had to relocate in the World League. With the speaking and everything like that, I could have gone somewhere like Spain where they didn't speak a lot of English but it turned out to be great experience for me. I really enjoyed those three to four months I was there."

By the time that season had ended, Smith would start focusing on the next phase of his life away from football.

"Once you start playing football you have to feel that in your system," he says. "I tell guys to continue to play as long as you have the desire to play. When you start playing and you see guys in the league who you know you're better than and you know you should be playing in and out there in front of, it's a numbers game or they may keep this guy because of this certain reason, you start to lose that desire."

That time for Smith had come quickly.

"When you lose that drive, then you got to make that decision, 'Is this what I really want to do?' because I knew I needed to do something with my life and I need to go into my career and I need to try and get started and when I felt that, I felt it was time for me to hang up my cleats and start devoting my life into another direction and that's when I came into the school system to be a school teacher and start helping other kids and being a coach."

Smith would teach at an alternative education program for a year but he sensed he was limited in that realm, so he went to a familiar place, Miami Northwestern Senior High School.

"I came back to my alma mater and a lady by the name of Kim Cox, who was a former English teacher of mine was the assistant principle there," Smith recalls. "I went in there for an interview and told her that I was interested in teaching and she said she would love to hire me but the only way they could hire me is if I could coach at the school because they have a minority ratio where you have to have so many black teachers to white teachers working the school system.

"She said, ‘If you want to come in, it would be easier to bring you in as a coach' And I told her at the time I didn't want to coach because I really wanted to miss the game for a minute and really enjoy it before I got into it but I was pretty much thrust back into the game real quick and I wound up enjoying it."

At the time the head coach of the Bulls was Willie Goldsmith. After his run as an assistant, Smith would be elevated to the head coaching spot prior to the 2001 season.

"When I was asked would I be interested in the job when the job came available, I told them, 'If a particular coach leaves and by me being a graduate of Miami Northwestern, I would love to put in for the job' and I was shocked and surprised by the fact that I was the first graduate of Miami Northwestern to become the head football coach there. That caught me by surprise and I knew the scrutiny that comes along with being the head coach at Miami Northwestern. I thought I was ready for it, I was groomed for it being an assistant for seven years. I knew what it's like to play for the program, I played in it as a kid and I coached there as an assistant and now I'm the head coach. So I know all the high expectations that it takes to win at a program like Miami Northwestern Senior High School."

The Northwestern program is a Dade County fixture, youth football teams in the local area are named after the Bulls and kids dream of one day playing in the blue-and-yellow uniforms of Northwestern. It's considered by most pundits as one of the top ten high school football programs in the country and annually pumps out division one college talent like a Detroit assembly line.

And they play like Bulls in a China shop, they perform with a certain confidence and swagger that is very reminiscent of the local college team. Make no doubt about it, Miami Northwestern is the UM of Dade County.

"We try to be, we try to play like that," agreed Smith, who was a four-year letterman at Northwestern under coach Roger Coffey. "We play with a lot of confidence, a lot of cockiness because we play with no fear. We know that we are one of the target programs out there. People want to beat us; people want to play hard against us. We can play some of the worst ranked teams in the county but their best game will be that night against Miami Northwestern.

"So we try to get our team jacked up every week and we let them know how important it is to play week in and week out because any given Saturday or Friday night you can lose a game if you don't come with your 'A' game."

And coaching at Northwestern means that there's a good chance that you'll be coaching future Hurricanes like a Vernon Carey, Jerrel Weaver, David Williams, Travarous Bain and the incoming Leo Waiters. Since Butch Davis took over the Miami program in 1995, Northwestern has been a steady pipeline for the Hurricanes. And under Larry Coker, nothing has changed.

"I think the kids know," Smith says on the Northwestern to Miami connection. "UM, pretty much sells itself and the kids want to be the next guy at Northwestern to have a great career at the University of Miami. But we also have kids that are out there that are going to other universities as well like Florida St., Florida, Rutgers and other schools. But the majority of them want to stay home and play in front of their parents and their peers that they've been playing in front of throughout their high school careers.

"And they say, 'What better way to continue playing? In front of one of the best crowds, best cities, best teams. Why not go to Miami?' Because it sells itself, Miami is a good program and the kids enjoy it," continued Smith, who was enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences at Miami. "That's the reason I think they want to go because the former players who played there and they want to be the next great player from Miami Northwestern Senior High School to be in that long line of players that went there."

But unlike some coaches who guide or steer their player to and from college programs, Smith lets his players make their own decisions.

"I don't guide anybody, anywhere. My thing is, I'm not going to be there for the next four or five years. I wouldn't want to tell a kid,' You've got to go here, you've to go there' A lot of people may think that because I'm a graduate of the University of Miami but that's not the issue because the kids will be there for four, five years, not me."

This past recruiting season saw the saga of a defensive tackle who changed his mind from his coaches alma mater to the arch rival.

"I had a kid this year who committed to Miami, who didn't go, Clifton Dixon, who decided to go to Florida State," Smith explains. "That was his choice and I told him, ‘Son, when you make a decision like this you got to follow your heart' and he told me, 'Coach, my heart tells me to go to Florida St.' I said, 'Well, that's where your heart tells you to go, congratulations son, you're going to be a Seminole."

Along with the players that have gone onto to UM, the Northwestern program has sent players like Marvin Jones, Snoop Minnis, Harold Green and Antonio Bryant among others to the next level and beyond. But some, like at many other schools, never make it as they are academic casualties. Smith says he tries to limit them within his program as much as possible.

"We groom them when they first arrive there at school," says Smith, of his player's academics. "We set them up and we stress to them how important it is, especially when you see guys as talented as the guys that come through our program. We've seen guys come through and if a guy plays as a freshman on our varsity team- he's going to be a player.

"I mean, we pretty much help them out, we help out all our kids but we pretty much try to make sure that those kids take the proper classes they need, take the proper courses they need to make sure they're eligible for the NCAA clearinghouse and to be ready to go on the next level because we have kids now that have some making up to do, that are going to summer school to try to get their grades up and their core grades up and to try to stay on line.

"We don't wait until their senior year. I think that's too much pressure that people put on a kid and we shouldn't allow our kids to be put in a situation like that because they should be able to concentrate on playing football and not worrying about a whole lot of other things."

In his first two years at the head coach at Miami Northwestern, Smith has continued the strong tradition of the Bulls program. In his first year in 2001, he would make it all the way to the state finals before losing to Apopka. Last year, his team would make it to the state semi-finals before losing to eventual state champs Norland High by a score of 21-20.

This year's edition of the Bulls will be led by cornerback Trevor Ford and wide receiver Khalil Jones, who could be future Canes and it features a cast of other D1 prospects.

"This team can be a team that catches people by surprise," said Smith of this year's squad. "We lost a lot of people that went to big-time schools but we still have some big-time recruits on our team."

Smith will rattle of names like Antonio Dixon, Tim Harris, Tim and Bobby Brown and notes that, "We have one of the best juniors I think in the nation in our offensive lineman, Christopher Barney."

Pretty soon fall camp will be starting, but football nowadays is a 12 month operation at all levels of the game.

"Football begins and never ends," says the coach. "We've been working out ever since Christmas break after the season was over with. When we came back from the Christmas break, we've been working out in the weight room trying to get stronger, we're running 110's, doing seven-on-seven-type of stuff, getting ready for the next season, going to football camps. Some of our kids went to UM camp, we're going to the passing camp at FIU.

"So we're doing things to get our timing together before two-a-days start so when the season gets rolling, we'll be in tremendous shape, ready to roll."

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