Steve Smith’s athletic and coaching career ‘a collective effort of a bunch of people’

Steve Smith is one of the state’s elite high school football coaches. He is one of five new members who will be inducted into the Cherokee County Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday. Photo by Shannon Fagan.

By Shannon Fagan, WEIS Sports Director

NOTE: This is the fifth and final Q&A feature on the Cherokee County Hall of Fame Class of 2024 inductees. The induction ceremony will take place this Saturday at Richard Lindsey Arena beginning at 6 p.m. The ceremony is open to the public and there is no charge for admission. Today’s Hall of Fame focus features Steve Smith.

A 1988 graduate of Cherokee County High School, Smith played at quarterback for head coach Bobby Joe Johnson. He helped lead the Warriors to two area football championships and was an all-state honorable mention as a senior.

Smith passed for a then-school record 1,173 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1987 and was the school record holder for career passing yards with over 2,100 yards.

After graduating from high school, Smith went on to play at Jacksonville State (1988-91). He was part of three Gulf South Conference championship teams as a player under head coach Bill Burgess. Smith also served as a graduate assistant on the Gamecocks’ 1992 Division II national championship team.

After graduating from JSU, Smith had a successful 11-year football coaching reign at Class 1A Cedar Bluff, which includes an 85-45 record with 10 playoff wins and six region championships.

Smith’s football success shifted over to Class 3A Piedmont in 2006. In 17 years at Piedmont, he guided the Bulldogs to a 198-36 record, which includes a 52-12 mark in the playoffs with five state championships, two state runners-up, and 10 region titles.

In 29 years, Smith has a combined record of 288-86, including a 62-22 mark in the playoffs. He just finished his first season as head football coach at Class 3A Westbrook Christian in Rainbow City.

Smith is married to fellow Class of 2024 inductee, the former Rachel Stone.

Q: Who were some of the athletes you emulated?

A: “Growing up in a small town, when I was in elementary and middle school, we’d be on the playground and want to be like the guys at the high school. I just think back to those teams and the people we saw playing when we were coming out here on Friday nights. In the spring, about the time I got to middle school, they’d won a couple of baseball championships and everybody wanted to hit like Boo Jelks and those type of things. Just growing up in a small town, getting to watch those people on Friday nights in the fall and with basketball season, the groups in the corner singing and chanting and the parents, it was just a fun time growing up. I don’t know if there was any one person I can recall who I’d try to be like.

“Professional-wise, I was a Braves fan. I grew up a Dale Murphy fan and all, but those were probably the ones I tried to emulate.”

Q: You mentioned baseball. Let’s start there. Twice you were an all-area selection. You were selected for the East-West All-Star Game. Team-wise, the Warriors won three area titles. What are some of your baseball memories?

A: “Coach (Bobby) Beckett had a son, Alan, who was the same age as me, so growing up and getting to watch those teams who won state championships in 1980 and 1981 (was a big deal). Our little league was always strong. When I was in little league, they built a new park, what we called the new fields, which is where they currently play youth league baseball. The league was growing. There were eight teams in the league. Baseball was what everybody did in the spring. There wasn’t a whole lot of other options. We’d play on Saturdays. Several people lived out at Northwood Estates out by the airport runway. We’d have games out there about every Saturday during the springtime. It was just something you could start doing at an early age. I think we had to be eight years old. We didn’t have tee ball. We came straight into kids pitching to each other. You grow up in a hurry learning how to play the game. It was just something everybody in the community enjoyed doing.”

Q: Moving on to football, you developed into an all-state quarterback. When you graduated, you held the single season record for passing yardage and touchdown passes, as well as the career record holder in passing yardage. That was a time when the West Coast offense was coming into football. What are some of your memories from that?

A: “Being the season leader and career leader in passing yardage for Coach Johnson wasn’t necessarily blowing numbers out of the water. We were pretty good, and we had some guys who were pretty good at the receiver positions. We had some good running backs when I came through. People would just kind of crowd the line of scrimmage and dare us to throw the ball. We had some big plays there throwing the football.

“Coach Johnson, if he was airing it out, it might’ve been six or seven times in a game. That’s what I tell people all the time. Thirty points was an offensive explosion back in the mid-80s. If we ever threw it 10 times, I think my senior year I might’ve threw it for 10 times twice in a game. That was him really airing it out.

“I didn’t even know that about the record stuff. I didn’t know people kept records way back then. I just knew I enjoyed throwing the ball the few times we did. Most of the time when we threw it, it surprised the other team. We had somebody open. My job was just to get it to them.”

Q: In talking about that, some of the guys you played with during your career, I know there are a ton of them, but who were some of them that stood out?

A: “There were a lot of guys I grew up with who are already in this Hall of Fame and a lot more of them who either should be or will be down the road. Just growing up, we played youth league together, middle school ball together. Probably the most famous person to come through was Martin Houston, who was on the (1992) national championship team at Alabama. Just a lot of guys who were hard-nosed teammates, people who I grew up with – the Lee Gladdens, the Brad Russells, the Ollie Sanders, the Paul Bishops, Jim Davises – those guys. It was a special time with all those folks. We all had dreams and aspirations of getting to hold up a blue trophy for the Centre Warriors. That was what we were called back then. That was before Cherokee County was what the school became known as. Just being out there with those guys and the memories we had from childhood all the way through was special.

“We talk all the time about the ones we should’ve won, the ones that got away. Recently I was with one of my old classmates and we were talking about how we’d love to be able to go back and redo everything.

“Our 1987 team, when we were seniors, we were ranked No. 1 in the state. A lot of people had kind of written it down that we were the team to beat. We lost a heartbreaker up at Deshler. That was how our season ended. In 1984, when we were freshmen, we got to come up after the middle school season ended. We played in the state championship game at Warrior Stadium versus T.R. Miller and come up a couple of points short. I don’t know if we ever really realized what was in front of us and the opportunities we had. Coming up short are still things we talk about to this day.”

Q: Coach Johnson is such an iconic figure here in this county and state. His practices were tough. He wanted players who were committed to effort and the team. What was it like playing for him?

A: “Coach Johnson was hard-nosed, but he was one of the most loving and caring people you could be around. He’d have that ‘Whew, feller.’ He’d tell you all the time ‘Whew feller, if I’ve got more than 30 out there, I’m not working them hard enough.’ It was just one of those situations where he really believed big time in the hard work and physical part of the game.

“I look now as I coach and I think about what our practice schedules are during the week. There was no way it would’ve flown that way when he was coaching. We were full pads on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Monday was usually punishment practice if we didn’t play good or, heaven forbid, if you ever lost to somebody. Monday was never a fun day. Tuesday and Wednesday, we didn’t have a practice schedule. Coach Johnson’s schedule was to practice until he was satisfied. It might be 5 o’clock. It might be 6. It might be 6:30. We practiced until he felt good about it. Now days, everybody on Thursdays do walk-throughs in shorts and things like that. We did that some on Thursdays but it would still be an hour-and-a-half or two hours. If he wasn’t happy with how Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday went, we’d go pads on Thursday. All this stuff about saving their legs and getting their legs back under them and all the things you hear now from the sports science people, our practice schedule for the week a lot of times was dictated how we played the previous Friday night and whether or not he thought we were giving great effort Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.”

Q: In keeping with Coach Johnson, he was serious about the classroom as well. I’ve actually heard him say this when talking about you as a student athlete. He always began with ‘Steve was the class valedictorian.’

A: “He always impressed upon us the importance on what you’re supposed to do. He had great advice for me many, many times. One thing he never backed off on was doing your absolute best in the classroom. It helped that I had those kinds of parents too. My mom (Carolyn) and dad (Winston) were very committed to me doing the best I could. It wasn’t necessarily a number. It didn’t have to be a particular letter grade. It was just give us your best. Coach Johnson demanded that from all of us. He wanted us to always do our very best. He impressed upon us how important it was for us to be leaders in the school and be the guys who did things the right way and being good examples for the underclassmen as they were coming up, whether it was in the locker room or school building.

“A lot of things he was teaching us I don’t know if we realized he was teaching us those things at that time, but it helped carry us to successful careers after high school.”

Q: After high school, you signed with Jacksonville State. You were part of three Gulf South Conference championship teams in 1988, 1989 and 1991. Two of those squads – 1989 and 1991 – you were national runners-up. Bill Burgess was the head coach. What are some of your memories of Coach Burgess and some of the players and coaches at JSU?

A: “I got to Jacksonville State and everybody there was a good player from their high school team. I tell my kids, my players, my coaches to this day for the better part of my first three years there, I was a scout-team player. I played very little. That was a time before the transfer portal and all that stuff. There was never the opportunity to quit. Quitting was not an option. This was in the days when you were a scout-team quarterback and they didn’t have the non-contact jerseys. Every week I was fair game for the first-team defense for the first three years I was down there basically. Coach Burgess and my position Coach (Charlie) Maniscalco, both of those guys are in multiple halls of fame.

“I go back to being surrounded by great people, teammate-wise we had several guys off those teams when I was at Jacksonville State who went on to have long careers in the NFL. A lot of those guys went into high school and college coaching. I think at one time I counted 35 of us from that era who are high school head coaches in the state of Alabama.

“Just the way Coach Burgess did things, he was very tough and demanding as well, but he loved his players. His circle was kind of tight. If you were in his circle, you were in it for life. He didn’t let a lot of people inside his circle outside of his team and his family and his team’s family members. That was his circle. He didn’t really care about the outside noise. I learned a lot of great things from him about coaching and controlling the things you can control and keeping the outside noise out of the locker room and keeping the guys focused on the task at hand. He was a great motivator as far as team building. If you go back and look at the rosters we had, we were winning with offensive linemen who were 220, 225. They were not the stereotypical 300-pounders you see today. He just took a lot of guys who were hard-nosed and believed in each other and were committed to football. That was the guys he liked. He didn’t care if you were 5-10 or 6-2, it didn’t matter. If you had it on the inside, that was the kind of guy he was looking for. I learned so much from him and those guys who were there at that time about how to put together a team through the chemistry of everybody buying in to the common goal.

“It was a very successful run the four years I was there as a player. My fifth year I was a student assistant. I was a guy who needed one more semester, two more classes to get my degree. It was going to conflict a little bit with football. Again, I was a backup. I went to Coach Burgess and he said ‘I think you’ve got a career in coaching.’ He said ‘Why don’t you help me out as a student assistant? I’ll pay for your schooling and you can be there on the days you can be there.’ I got to help in the spring with recruiting. He paid for my entire master’s degree. I’m very much thankful for that. I will always be indebted to Coach Burgess for taking care of me.

“When I completed my master’s degree, I was working at Cherokee County High School as an in-school suspension supervisor in the fall of ’93. Even though I wasn’t at Jacksonville, he blessed me coming here because I came to work with Jeff Bullen, who had played for Coach Burgess at JSU. He told me he wanted me to take this job and get started working with Coach Bullen. He thought highly of Coach Bullen. He went ahead and paid for my last 18 hours of my master’s. I wasn’t even helping him at Jacksonville State anymore. That’s just the kind of person he was. I’m very appreciative of that.

“I wouldn’t take anything for my time there. We won the national championship in 1992. I was a student assistant. I helped with quarterbacks and running backs with Coach Maniscalco, who had been my position coach. I just learned a whole lot from those guys about organization of practice and basically how to deal with people. They were great with people.

“The thing I think speaks volumes about those people the most is in 1995 or 1996, I can’t remember which year it was, that Coach Burgess was replaced there, Jacksonville State was making the move to (Division) I-AA in football at that time. I think the university probably thought we need to get a more high-profile type of person. Coach Burgess was not big on talking to the booster clubs and asking for money. He was all about that circle he had. What spoke volumes to me though was when that happened and that staff pretty much had to go looking for jobs, 90-percent of that staff went back to high school. As soon as their tenure ended at Jacksonville State, they got high school jobs and went back to coaching high school kids. They weren’t ever about their ego. They were about just trying to help kids. I thought that was something that told the real story about who those people were.”

Q: You’re entering your 30th year as a head coach. You’ve accumulated 288 wins. That puts you in the top 10 all-time in Alabama high school football history. You’re in the top five in playoff victories, have five state championships. The years at Cedar Bluff, you have six region championships there, 10 playoff appearances in 11 years. Could you talk about some of the players, coaches and teams you had there?

A: “Those were some of the best memories of my life. I loved my time at Cedar Bluff. Those guys were hard-nosed, blue-collar type guys. You talk about Cedar Bluff football, and you can’t talk about it without talking about Tyrone Moore, Cole Peace, Josh Moten, Jamie Hampton, Matt Wilson, Jeremy Bryant Austin Hayes, and on and on I could go with the list of kids who mean so much to me. I was barely older than them when I got the job. When I got hired, I was 24. I had a senior class that had some 18- and 19-year-olds in it. I got hired the last week of July. I think I met my first team at the first practice. All I knew was how I’d been coached.

“I’m very thankful Bobby Mintz gave me my first opportunity as a head coach. He had been the coach prior to me and had ascended to the principal’s role. It was kind of late in the summer when all that went down. I got the job late, but he stuck by me. I was young and dumb in the beginning. I think we finished that first year 2-8. I think I had 13 players at the last game. I pretty much ran everybody off. I remember him bringing me in after (the season) and said ‘I’m going to bring you back for another year. You need to learn from your first year. I’m learning as a principal. You’re learning as a coach. You do need to be mindful this place has a pretty proud football tradition here. You just about finished the year without having a team.’ That kind of got my attention a little bit. I was thankful to get a second year there and a second chance to do some things differently, learn from the stupid mistakes I made. We were able to take some steps forward that year, then the next year, we had an undefeated season Tyrone and BJ Long and Nick Brown and Barry Rice and Torey McDaniel, who is the principal there now, Shawn Palmer, a lot of great kids who came through. They stuck with me all three years. That first year we finished with 13 at Crossville that night, I think 11 of them were sophomores. They were the foundation of what we were able to build at Cedar Bluff that turned into something really special. I have nothing but great memories of my time there.

“Going into the Hall of Fame with Joe Carpenter and Jason Howard, I had three assistant coaches, those two and Dewayne Pierce. They’re great men and great coaches. They helped me out a lot and we were able to get that thing going in the right direction again. Cedar Bluff had been good in the past, but we were able to get it going back in the right direction after that little hiccup the first year. I think it’s really cool to be able to go in the Hall of Fame with Coach Carpenter and Coach Howard.”

Q: People really took notice of what you were able to accomplish at Cedar Bluff. In 2006, you make the move Piedmont and won 198 games, 10 region titles, five state championships and never missed a postseason. What are some of those memories you have at Piedmont?

A: “All of those are great memories at Piedmont. I grew up in Centre, and if you grew up in Centre, you were supposed to hate Piedmont. I tell funny stories all the time when I took that job in January of 2006. I had friends here in Centre, people I grew up with, who were calling me and asking me ‘What are you doing?’ Piedmont had been really good in the late 80s and early 90s with Coach (George) Hoblitzell, but then they kind of hit a little bit of a speed bump for about 10 or 12 years to where they were just middle of the pack. I had my buddies from Centre say ‘We pulled for you at Cedar Bluff because we didn’t have to play you. You’re going to Piedmont and it’s going to be hard to pull for you at Piedmont. We’ll pull for you, but we ain’t pulling for Piedmont.’ The first year I was there, I had so much of Centre engrained in me, I didn’t know if I liked myself coaching at Piedmont.

“Rachel and I had two children at the time, Sean and Sloan. She was pregnant with Savannah. It was kind of a transition time. We were looking for a place to live over there. The first year-and-a-half I was on the job over there I was still living in Cedar Bluff and driving every day. We didn’t get moved over there until May of 2007. Every day you’re going home from Piedmont and you had to go through Centre to get to Cedar Bluff. I’d run into somebody at the red light, at the Pump House, or somewhere in town. How’s it going over there? It’s going all right. Well, we’re not going to wish you good luck because it’s Piedmont.

“Me personally though, my time at Piedmont I found those people were very much like the people I grew up with. They were crazy about the school, crazy about athletics, and in particular, crazy about football. I had a lot of great players there, great coaches at Piedmont – people like James Blanchard and Matt Glover and Horace Bramblett. They were there the entire time with me. Then you had auxiliary pieces like Clifford Lawler and Mike Naugher who were part of Piedmont football for 30 years before I got there. The whole 17 years I was there they had their part. Mike Pody and Charles Givens and Vernon Young, they really welcomed me and helped me and did all they could to help us get things going the way Piedmont expected things to be – the facilities in the 2011 and 2012 school year, the successes we’ve had.

“If I started trying to name off players that come to mind – the Kevin Bedwells, the Chase Childerses, the Hayes brothers, CJ Savage, those guys who were just foundational pieces of what we did – they were just blue-collar folks who wanted to win ball games. Piedmont was just like Centre and Cedar Bluff. They were football-crazy towns on Friday night. You could probably rob any place in town if you wanted to because everybody was at the game, including the law. It was an awesome opportunity and great run we had there for sure.”

Q: Now you’re at Westbrook Christian. What are some of the differences between 1995 Steve Smith versus 2024 Steve Smith?

A: “A lot more experience, a lot more seasoned, a lot more observant of things that go on around you. To be honest, I had no business being a head coach in 1995. I had no idea what I was doing and what the job entailed. I guess as 30 years worth of experience has piled up you learn to surround yourself with great people. That’s kind of been my thing throughout everything that’s come my way. I’ve been very fortunate to have great assistant coaches, great players, booster clubs at both places I’ve been at who were very supportive of the athletes at the school, and the entire athletic program – in particular football. People were willing to buy into what we were trying to accomplish. Everybody had their role and everybody played their part. We were able to keep jealousy and things like that out of the equation. People just said ‘I’m going to do what I can to make the program better.’ Learning with how to deal with those types of things and learning how to make those connections in the community is something I feel I’ve gotten a little bit better at each stop along the way. I’m a collective effort of a bunch of people, buying into the philosophy of what we’re trying to accomplish, and everybody being content trying to play their role.”

Q: Keeping with community there, you were honored in 2014 by the AHSAA with the Making A Difference award. In 2005 and 2015, you were chosen by your peers as the Alabama Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year. How special is that coming from your peers?

A: “With all due respect to people like yourself and the people in the media over the years, a lot of times the media folks across the state don’t get to see the investment in the small communities like the Piedmonts and the Gordos and the Centres. When you’re asking sportswriters from all over the state, the guy at the Mobile Press Register doesn’t know the difference what’s going on at Centre versus Piedmont versus Fyffe or wherever.

“It’s always nice when somebody votes you for an award, but the awards you get from the Alabama High School Athletic Association, the awards you get from the Coaches Association, the people who actually see the work that’s put in, that Making A Difference award is probably the award I’m most proud of out of all the ones I’ve ever gotten.

“The whole reason I got into coaching and teaching, and I might add against Coach Johnson’s recommendation – he told me ‘Feller, you be whatever you want to be, just don’t be a football coach’ – the whole reason I got into coaching and teaching was to be able to positively impact young people. I love kids. Rachel, my wife, will tell you if the news comes on and something bad is happening to a kid, I don’t want to watch it. It makes me sick to my stomach. Even when I was in the math classroom teaching, I always wanted to teach the guys who were on the standard diploma. I wanted to try and work with the ones I felt like I could help.

“I’ve often said teaching and coaching is a calling. If you’re in it for the schedule or in it for the money, if you’re in it for any other reason, if you think it’s cool to have two months off during the summer and every weekend like some people claim teachers have the good life, those same people never got by on teachers’ salaries. They never spent money out of their own pocket to make sure everybody was able to eat lunch that day and have supplies. I think teachers and coaches make the ultimate sacrifice for the well being of their communities. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I really enjoy it and still love it to this day.”

Q: You worked with the Centre Rotary Club to start the SO-COOL program, worked as a camp director during the first summer there. That program still continues today. How proud are you you’re still impacting kids in the county?

A: “The rotary club – Jackie Jordan and Al Schumaker – were actually the first people who talked to me about trying to start something like that up. I thought they were just bouncing ideas off of me. Mr. Al, who I’d known since I was a kid, said ‘We think you might be the right guy to be the director.’ He said ‘Get three or four people to help you.’ I got Rachel to help, Patrick Walker, one of my good friends to help, and Jason and Cassie Shields. I think the five of us were pretty much the staff that summer. Probably not more than two or three months goes by that one of us does not bring up SO-COOL and some of the funny things that happened there and some of the memories.

“It’s a great idea. I think the rotary club in Centre still backs that program and funds it. It’s going on 30 years now. It was just a tremendous opportunity to give young people somewhere to go during the summer, give them some structure. It was a great opportunity for me. I know Rachel and I have talked about how we’ve grown from that. You see people from all backgrounds, different walks of life, who are all basically in one big gym. Everybody’s got to get along and they learn to do some things they weren’t comfortable with. They learn to appreciate other people’s likes.

“I don’t know how we got away with it, but we would march them out on the highway and go every Friday to the swimming pool in Centre. We’d have 50-60 kids and three or four of us 20-plus year olds walking down the highway going to the swimming pool. I’d take my truck and pick up lunch every day at the Big E deli. Some of the stuff that went on, I don’t know how we survived it. It was five days a week for eight weeks in the summer, but it was a lot of fun, something that I think helped me as a teacher and as a coach. I got some valuable experience at a very young age on how to deal with a lot of people.”

Q: Your immediate family is or has been within the athletic realm. How much has that meant to you?

A: “It’s cool to be able to go in the Hall of Fame with your wife. I don’t know how many people who can say that. I have a lot of respect for Rachel as a person and as an athlete for sure. She’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around – male or female. Our kids being involved with sports and having the opportunity to coach Sean and Sloan in high school football and middle school baseball, and then watching Rachel get to coach Savannah in softball, has been special. My mom and dad, if there was a hall of fame for parents, my parents would’ve been first-year ballot inductees. I have great parents. It sounds just repetitive the people I grew up with and the players I played with and the coaches I played for, the kids I had at Cedar Bluff and the kids I had at Piedmont, I’ve just been surrounded by really, really good people everywhere I’ve been. I often tell myself it would’ve been hard for me to mess it up to be honest, just because of the great people I’ve been around my entire life.

“My family is the No. 1 objective in my life. I love my wife and my kids and my parents, my sister (Andi) and her family, my in-laws. That’s who I really am. People see the Friday night stuff, but I’m also one of those people who have a really small circle. I’ve got a lot of acquaintances, but I’ve got a pretty small circle and most of it is family. I’ve got a few really close friends, but that’s what my life centers around. I’ve been blessed beyond measure to be around those kinds of people my entire life. I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world with the hand God has dealt me.

Q: You’re joining a very select group of coaches, athletes and people who have put their stamp on sports history here in Cherokee County. What would you like to say to the people in the audience?

A: “I’m just honored to be selected. I really feel like there are so many people out there who are deserving and a lot of them who are probably more deserving. Again, I go back to the people who influenced me in my life and the people I had the opportunity to coach. As a coach, you’re only as good as your team and your assistants. I’ve had so many great people who have helped me out along the way. In school, I would consider myself a decent player but I wasn’t anything special. I was one part on a really good machine. I got to play for outstanding coaches and got to play with some outstanding guys. I’m very honored to be considered part of this 2024 class in the Cherokee County Sports Hall of Fame.

Q: You touched on going in with Rachel, but you’re also going in with a class with Jason Howard, Joe Carpenter and Tori Davis Grantham. How special is it to go in with such a class as a whole?

A: “I feel like I’ve got a connection to this whole group, with Coach Carpenter, Coach Howard and myself working together my first eight years over at Cedar Bluff. Obviously, Rachel and I have been married for 27 years this summer. When you talk about Tori Davis, her dad Doug, when we had an extra assistant coach added at Cedar Bluff, Doug Davis came over my third or fourth year and started helping us. He was around and I’ve known Tori Davis ever since she was little. I kept up with her career as she was a dominant player here at Centre. I feel very lucky to be a part of such a select group.”

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