At Illinois, Smith breaks ground he’s broken before
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — When he took over the Chicago Bears in 2004 and again this spring when Illinois hired him, Lovie Smith broke new ground that came with his title. In each case, he was the team’s first black head coach.
His childhood in East Texas prepared him for both jobs.
As a fifth-grader in Big Sandy, Smith was part of the first group of black kids to move into the small town’s newly desegregated schools in the late 1960s.
Smith does not talk a lot about that part of growing up in the town of 1,300, which is about 100 miles east of Dallas. But if asked, he doesn’t back away from it.
“I realize who I am and what people see,” he said when hired at Illinois in March. “To be the first at anything is pretty special.”
Smith downplays the idea that getting through those years at Big Sandy, where he was eventually part of three state-championship football teams, involved running any gauntlet.
“It’s not like there were riots or anything,” Smith said in an interview. “You were just apart, as much as anything.”
But being a black kid in the South during tumultuous times was not entirely smooth, either, said his son and agent, Matthew Smith.
Whatever complaints Bears fans had for Lovie Smith during his last few years in Chicago — and talk-radio conversation about the coach was tense at times — he had heard worse as a child, the younger Smith said.
“He’s got very thick skin,” Matthew Smith said. “He’s been called a lot of really bad stuff.”
That thick skin and Lovie’s Smith calm, mostly quiet demeanor served him well with the Bears, say people who remain in the organization from that time.
“He didn’t get carried away by the highs or the lows,” Bears Chairman George McCaskey said.
Added Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips, “To this day, he’s still the same way.”
In Chicago, both Phillips and McCaskey recall, there was no pressure from fans to hire a black coach to break that barrier 12 years ago when Smith became coach.
But the story is different at Illinois.
Before Smith, the school had never had a black head coach in either of the two highest-profile sports, football and men’s basketball. And fans have long complained about the poor Illini track record in recruiting top black athletes from Chicago, just two hours north.
While race does not fully explain why those players chose other schools, some people think a black coach might help tip the scales.
“I think it’s a great incentive for kids in our Chicago area to look at the University of Illinois,” said James Montgomery, a university trustee, Chicago lawyer and graduate of the school. Montgomery is black and has been an occasional critic of Illinois’ hiring record.
Smith hopes fans and recruits will see similar encouragement in his staff. Five of his nine assistants are black.
“I want our fans and any fans as a whole to see themselves in our staff,” Smith said. “You go around town in Champaign or in Chicago, you’re going to see a melting pot of people. That’s ideal.”
That’s a lesson Smith says he learned when desegregation ended in Big Sandy.
“Once we integrated, it opened up a whole new world for me,” he said. “I just think you grow once you get around people that look different than you, that have different opinions.”
The impact that Smith and classmates like David Overstreet, who eventually played for Oklahoma and the Miami Dolphins, had on Big Sandy sports probably helped smooth the first years of integration, too, said Larry Minter, the athletic director and football coach at Big Sandy High School and a 1991 graduate.
“It was a very successful time at our school,” Minter said, agreeing that winning tends to ease potential problems. “Dang right it does.”
Smith does not return to Big Sandy as often as he did when his parents were still alive, but Minter says Smith and his wife, MaryAnne, still play a significant role in the town’s sports.
They paid for the scoreboard at the high school football stadium, though they asked that Smith’s name not be on it, Minter said. Instead, a sign on the $50,000 scoreboard says it was donated by the family of Thurman Smith, Lovie Smith’s father.
And on a regular basis, Smith and his wife ask what else they can do. One year that meant shoes for every sports program at the school, Minter said. This year, it was $21,000 for high-end football helmets.
When two-a-day practices start every year, Minter says he tries to return the favor, driving home a reminder to young players straining through the East Texas heat that Smith and his career are signals of what’s possible, “that you can go from little old podunk Big Sandy and end up in the NFL.”
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: @davidmercerAP