When Mike Smith came to town, there were 78 Mike Smiths in the Atlanta telephone directory.
He became the 79th. I know of at least a dozen Mike Smiths in sports, the famous jockey, an NHL goal-tender, a linebacker, a professional golfer, a boxer, a sports reporter and a sports chiropractor. And there are probably a dozen or so more that have escaped my attention. But not this one, the football coach.
This is my favorite Mike Smith. There's nothing sexy about the name or the person. I don't know of a fellow who has come to this town and captured the hearts of the populace without putting a ball, swinging at one or kicking one than this Mike Smith.
(That's the only name he's known by. The Falcons press guide lists him only as plain "Mike Smith." )
There was neither nothing fancy about him.
He grew up one of eight children in Daytona Beach, where his parents were school teachers. In the summer break, his father painted houses and Mike painted alongside him.
When he was a senior in Father Lopez High School, he broke a leg and talked the coach into letting him stick around as a helper, and that was the beginning of what would become his career. (And I will tell you this, that he was one good-looking kid, as in handsome.)
He was able to get get scholarshipped by East Tennessee State---which has since dropped football---and twice was the team's leading linebacker. Afterward, he was able to find a job at San Diego State, and drove across country in a rattling old Volkswagen. Then came Morehead State and Tennessee Tech, 14 seasons in the "bush leagues" of college football.
Then to the Ravens, then to the Jaguars, and I'm not quite sure just how it was that he caught the eye of Thomas Dimitroff, who had caught the eye of Arthur Blank, Rich McKay and the Falcons.
After trundling through five seasons and four coaches (if you include Emmitt Thomas, who sat in through the Bobby Petrino fiasco), the Falconery finally got it right. I'd guess that if you had to settle on just what makes Mike Smith tick, it's the fact that he came here not just to coach, but to teach. Rod Woodson, who had been with the Ravens when Mike was there, had this to say.
"I think teaching is a lost art in the NFL. There are a lot of coaches who can put X's and O's on the board, but they can't teach a guy why they did it. Mike can do that. He'll be a good teacher."
Not only that, but as coaches go, Mike is a special human being, and he and Dimitroff have forged a kind of leadership Arthur Blank grappled to find through those first five seasons. This is it, this is the man, the 79th Mike Smith in the phone directory, and once again The Sporting News Coach of the Year. My kind of man, not just coach.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald.