Smith drawing up life's next big step

Smith drawing up life's next big step

CHAMPAIGN — Some families gravitate toward law enforcement. Some become teachers. And others favor sales.

For the Smiths of West Virginia, there is one career path: coaching.

From a very young age, it's what new Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith knew he was destined to do.

His dad, Gary, is a longtime, successful high school coach. He has worked 30-plus years and is still going strong. Rod's brother-in-law also went into the family business.

And his uncles were coaches, too.

"He would be out there with us on the ballfield at practices," Gary said.

One time, the coaches were in the office when Gary heard a big thump.

"Rod had crawled up on the training table. He went to sleep and fell off," his dad recalled. "He was always around football. We thought that would be the direction he would go."

Rod has said repeatedly his dad is his hero.

"He was a role model for me," Rod said. "I wanted to grow up being my dad."

Gary plans to travel to Champaign later in March to watch his son run the Illinois offense. He wants to wait until after spring break to let his son get settled in.

"We're extremely proud of him," Gary said. "I pinch myself sometimes to see how successful he's been and the level that he's got. Coming from a small town like this, it doesn't happen very often."

Rod's first job after college was serving as his dad's offensive coordinator.

"He called the offense and I called the defense and we had a ball that year," Gary said.

West Virginia roots

Rod grew up in Franklin, W.Va., a city of 721.

"One stop light and we didn't have that stop light when I was in school," Rod said. "It's kind of like a modern-day Mayberry. The people there are tremendous."

Gary still lives in the home where he raised Rod and his sister, Michelle. Rod's mom, Debbie, passed away four years ago.

Rod rarely misbehaved as a kid. Gary credits that to Debbie.

"He was very easy," Gary said. "Always made good grades. You never had to bug him about getting his work done. He took care of things in the classroom as well as on the field."

Debbie was a beautician and had a salon in the home.

Back in the day

Rod prefers to coach dual-threat quarterbacks. Guys who can throw and run.

Rod the player would not have fit with Rod the coach.

Rod was a throw-first quarterback. He played for his dad at Franklin, starting his final two years.

"I was OK," Rod said. "I was probably an overachiever-type guy.

"I couldn't run. I had limited athletic ability, but I had the ability to throw the football pretty well. I was accurate. And I made smart decisions."

Dad has another take.

"We often say 'He had a Division I arm and Division II feet,' " Gary said. "He could throw the heck out of it."

Gary didn't take it easy on his son. And that was fine.

"He was harder on me than he was on anyone else," Rod said. "But I wouldn't want it any other way. I loved it."

Rod went from football to basketball to baseball. He was a small forward on good basketball teams.

"I couldn't run and I couldn't jump," Rod said, "but I could shoot it."

In baseball, he pitched and played on the corners.

He had a chance to play college baseball, but wanted to stick with football.

Rod could have walked on at Marshall. His dream was to play at James Madison in nearby Harrisonburg, Va.

Rod and Gary often went to see the Dukes. It is 41 miles from Franklin.

"I grew up a Dukes fan," Rod said.

Rod originally went to Division III Bridgewater College in Virginia. He played in every game as a freshman, but decided to join Rich Rodriguez at Division II Glenville State in West Virginia.

He was a backup his sophomore and junior seasons to West Virginia transfer Scott Otis, then became the starter as a senior. Rod threw 29 touchdown passes his one year as starter, which ranks among the single-season best in school history. The Pioneers finished 7-3.

Rod's coach at Glenville became a focal figure in his coaching career.

Other than his father, Rodriguez had the most influence on Rod's career. They worked together at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona.

"All the credit in the world goes to him getting me in the Division I scene," Rod said. "I was not a Division I athlete. In order to break in, you had to know somebody and he was the vehicle that allowed that to happen."

Yes, they have similar football philosophies. But Rod is not a clone of his former boss.

"I think everybody's got their own spin on things," Rod said.

Rodriguez's greatest strength, Rod said, is maximizing a player's talents. He could win with lesser players.

Rodriguez demands full effort. All the time.

"Rich lives that," Rod said.

Practices are exhausting. Lots of running. Even more hustle.

"It's a grind," Rod said.

New challenge

At Illinois, Rod is on his own with the offense for the first time since a successful two-year stay at South Florida in 2005-06.

Rod proved to himself in Tampa he could run an offense without Rodriguez around.

"That was a great time for me to grow as a coach," Rod said.

His dad thinks Rod can someday be a head coach.

"He's well-prepared for it," Gary said. "His demeanor and the way he is able to get along with people, he'll be a head coach one day. It's just a matter of time."

Home alone

Eager to get started at Illinois, Rod Smith is living in a local hotel. By himself.

For now, Rod's family is back in Tucson, Ariz. His son, Alex, is finishing his junior year in high school and trying to decide what to do next season.

A talented cornerback, Alex played a key role for Salpointe Catholic, which reached the Arizona state finals.

"They've got everybody back," Rod said. "I think he'd like to be able to finish that up."

Rod misses wife, Charlene, Alex and young daughter Sasha.

"I'm a big family guy," Rod said. "We go out to dinner. We go out to movies. Sometimes, it's just hang at the house and chill and enjoy each other's company."

Sasha just turned 6. She is in kindergarten.

"A bundle of joy," Rod said. "She's had me wrapped for 6 years and it's still going strong."

As a dad, Charlene gives Rod high marks.

"He's amazing," she said. "He does so much even though he has so much on his plate with his work. He's very involved."

Long-distance romance

Being apart isn't new for Rod and Charlene. In the first six months of their relationship, they lived in different cities. Rod was in Tampa working at South Florida. And Charlene lived in New Jersey.

Mutual friends introduced them and they hit if off right away.

Rod called Charlene every night. Often after long hours of coaching.

"She would be waiting on the call every night for months," Rod said.

Rod warned Charlene about the long hours. He wanted her to understand what it was like to be involved with a coach.

"I actually did some research myself," Charlene said. "I would go on message groups and see what some of the wives were talking about. Some of them just couldn't handle it and some of them said, 'Hey, that's how it is.' I tried to get a feel for what it was like.

"I think if it's going to work, it's going to work from the beginning."

Rod sent flowers and tried to see Charlene as often as possible. He sent notes on the South Florida letterhead.

"To this day, he says he was recruiting me," Charlene said.

Charlene was always a big NFL fan. She has grown to love the college game.

Eventually, Charlene moved to Florida and the couple got engaged. They got married on April 23, 2005.

"She's completely awesome," Rod said. "She's so supportive. Not one time has she ever said. 'Honey, why are you coming home so late?' She understands the business. She understands the time demands."

They tease each other about their respective accents. Rod has a West Virginia drawl. Charlene has a hint of New York.

"I can push her buttons," Rod said.

In recent years, Charlene started working as a Realtor. It comes in handy for a coach's wife. The move to Illinois will be their sixth together.

"I love the new adventures and the journey of it all," Charlene said. "It's just really fun."

Charlene and the kids planned to visit C-U last weekend, but couldn't make the trip because of poor weather.

"It was so disappointing," Charlene said. "We'll be there. This is the first time we've had to stay behind. I'm usually ready to pack up."

Friends for life

Tony Gibson first met Rod when they were in college at Glenville. Gibson played cornerback and Rod was the quarterback.

They roomed together in college, along with star receiver Chris George.

Rod and Gibson went into coaching.

They have remained close. Rod was in Gibson's wedding. They worked together at Michigan.

"Rod is a great, great person," Gibson said. "He's a caring person. He's a giving person."

Rod was the guy who would lend money to his friends or pay for food.

"If you ever needed anything, you could go to him," Gibson said.

As much as they liked him, Gibson and George didn't mind messing with Rod.

"He would always get scared real easy," Gibson said. "Me and (George) would hide behind trees or we'd hide in the house in the dark and we would jump up and scare him. He doesn't like being scared."

Gibson's son, Cody, recently joined the Illinois staff as an offensive analyst. Tony Gibson is thrilled to have Cody working with his friend.

"When that opportunity came open for him, I was so excited," Gibson said. "Rod is one of those guys I trust with my kids and my family."

Gibson said his friend will excel in the Big Ten.

"I think he's going to give (opponents) some issues," Gibson said. "Not everybody in that league plays that style. He can do a lot of different things. He's going to create problems for people."

The Rod Smith File

Here are a few of Rod Smith's favorites, courtesy of wife Charlene:

Food: Pizza, preferably thin crust.

Movie: "Rocky" and all of the sequels.

TV shows: "Sanford and Son" and "The Andy Griffith Show."

Song: "Humpty Dance" by Digital Underground.

Vacation spot: East Coast and Hawaii.

Color: Blue.

Holiday: Christmas.

Animal: Dog.