Tuesday, February 15, 2011

South Florida Legend: George Smith

The scowl. If you've ever seen or met St Thomas Aquinas High School football coach George Smith, you've experienced it. His facial expression rarely changes. Unless you really know Smith well, it's hard to tell whether he's happy or angry. He can be intimidating, sarcastic and sometimes even funny. The players change. But his face and his teams ability to win games rarely waivers. Smith is the epitome of consistency. His Aquinas Raiders have won 6 state championships, 7 runner-up finishes and 2 mythical national titles. But after 34 years of coaching and 361 career victories, we will no longer see Smith pace the sidelines in his trademark coach's shorts and scowl. He will step down as Aquinas head football coach, but will remain as the school's athletic director. Defensive coordinator Rocco Casullo will be Smith's replacement. It will be hard to imagine South Florida high school football without him.

George Smith never thought he'd be a coaching legend. In fact he never thought he'd be a head football coach. A native of Lafayette, Indiana and graduate of Purdue University, Smith moved to Fort Lauderdale and was originally hired by St. Thomas Aquinas to start the school's wrestling program in 1972. He spent 7 years coaching wrestling while also serving as an assistant football coach under then head coach Dave Franks. In 1975, Smith replaced Franks as head football coach and Broward County football would never be the same.

When Smith arrived at St. Thomas Aquinas, the school's athletic program was mostly known for Chris Evert's tennis exploits and the football team had yet to establish itself as a local power. Brian Piccolo, who graduated in 1961 back when the school as known as Central Catholic High School, was the most famous football alumnus at the time. Aquinas wasn't even considered the best Catholic school football program in Broward County, lagging behind rivals Cardinal Gibbons and Chaminade. That would change.

By the late 1970s St. Thomas Aquinas was starting to emerge as one of the best football programs in South Florida. Smith surrounded himself with quality assistants, many of whom have worked with him for decades or played for Smith. The success of Aquinas began to attract to players from all over Broward. These players included All American lineman Stefan Humphries and quarterback Mike Stanley, who later became a major league catcher for several years. By the early 1980s, Aquinas had eclipsed Hollywood Hills High School to become the predominant power of Broward County. Smith's 1981 Raiders, led by quarterback John Congemi, went undefeated during the regular season before losing to Suncoast High School of Riviera Beach in the state playoffs. It was the best finish in the history of the Aquinas program at that point. But the best was yet to come. Two years later, Aquinas went undefeated again. This time they were led by a big, cocky wide receiver named Michael Irvin. But again, Smith's quest for a state championship was dashed in the state playoffs by then Class 3A champion Titusville.

For all of Smith's success, it's hard to believe it took him 16 years to reach his first state championship game. That first title game appearance didn't go well. In 1991 Aquinas was crushed 39-14 by a Fort Walton Beach team led by future UF Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel. But after 17 years of frustration, Smith's finally got his first state championship ring in 1992 when Aquinas beat Tallahassee Leon 24-9 in Gainesville.

After finally winning it all, Smith called it quits after the 1992 season and remained as the school's athletic director. Mike Spencer took on the daunting task of replacing Smith. Spencer would quickly learn those big shoes were almost impossible to fill. Aquinas qualified for the state playoffs in 1993 and 1994, but were unable to maintain the program's dominance under Smith. Those two years being away from the sidelines were tough for Smith. He still had the competitive juices flowing and decided to return as head coach in 1995. From the that point on, Aquinas would be an almost regular participant in the 4A or 5A state championship games.

From 1996 through 2010, Aquinas reached the state title game a remarkable 11 times in 15 years. Five of those teams would leave with the championship trophy. But some of his best teams never won a title. During a 3-year stretch from 2004-2006, Aquinas lost to Lakeland each year including a double overtime heartbreaker in 2006 at Dolphin Stadium (Now Sun Life Stadium). Smith's 2009 team may have been his best ever. Aquinas was ranked #1 in the nation at the time by USA Today. But the Raiders were upset by Bradenton Manatee in the Class 5A semifinals. Smith's career would not end with a loss. The 2010 team would rebound and defeat Tampa Plant in the 5A state finals, giving Smith his 6th and final state title. It would be his last game..

George Smith leaves an enormous legacy and void in local high school football and Broward County athletics. Not only was he a great football coach, he also developed the most successful complete athletic program in South Florida as the school's athletic director. St. Thomas Aquinas has won or challenged for state titles in just about every varsity sport. The school's athletic program has won the Miami Herald's Broward County All Sports Award every year for over 20 years running.

He has a huge amount of admirers and critics. Many claim Aquinas has an unfair advantage over most of its competition.. Good or bad, St. Thomas Aquinas is a private school that has the ability to draw students throughout South Florida. In a few cases, there have been athletes who've moved to South Florida from out of state or from other parts of Florida just to be a part of Smith's program. One notable example was when former Miami Southwest High defensive back Lamarcus Joyner transferred to play for Aquinas during his senior year. While I can't prove St. Thomas Aquinas recruits athletes from other schools, there's no doubt talented kids want to be a part of that program. Under Smith, hundreds of his former players have gone on to college and have become successful in various fields. During his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Michael Irvin went out of his way to mention Smith in his speech and the impact he had on Irvin's life as a coach and mentor. No matter what your opinion may be of George Smith, there is no doubt there will never be another one like him.

George Smith by the numbers:

Career Record: 361-66

State Championships: 1992, 1997, 1999, 2007, 2008, 2010

National Championships: 2008, 2010

Undefeated Regular Seasons: 1981, 1983, 1986, 1991, 1992, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2008, 2010

Notable Former Players:

Tony Brown - Class of 00
Wes Byrum - Class of 07
Greg Cox - Class of 84
Duron Carter - Class of 09
John Congemi - Class of 82
Tavares Gooden - Class of 03
Leonard Hankerson - Class of 07
Stefan Humphries - Class of 84
Michael Irvin - Class of 84
Lamarcus Joyner - Class of
Sterling Palmer - Class of 89
Daryl Porter - Class of 93
Twan Russell - Class of 92
Nate Salley - Class of 02
Tony Sands - Class of 88
Terry Smith - Class of 93
Mike Stanley - Class of 81
Slip Watkins - Class of 86
James White - Class of 10
Major Wright - Class of 07
Sam Young - Class of 06

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