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April 10, 2011The day was Oct. 7, 1989. The place was Jackson, Miss. And the answer was perfect.
The University of Alabama football team had spotted Ole Miss a three-touchdown lead in the first quarter. The early returns indicated that the Crimson Tide was going to suffer its first defeat of the season in spectacular fashion. But suddenly, the Crimson Tide offense, with quarterback Gary Hollingsworth, who had been penciled in as a third-teamer before a rash of early-season injuries, began moving. Then it began racing. Then it took off like a supersonic jet. The Crimson Tide scored 41 points - in the second quarter. It reeled off a staggering 62 unanswered points before Ole Miss got one late score to make the final 62-27.
After the game, I asked the architect of it all - Homer Smith, the UA offensive coordinator - a bland question.
"Coach, what did you think when your team was scoring 62 straight points?" I said.
"Two words," he answered. "Deo Gratias."
That answer, brilliant in its simplicity, was one of the first things I thought about Sunday when I heard that Smith had passed away earlier in the day, after a long illness, at the age of 78.
From our earlier conversations, Smith knew I had just enough rudimentary Latin to make a quick translation - "Thanks be to God," he had said. He was sharp-witted enough to know how Alabama fans would have reacted to a loss at that juncture in Bill Curry's tenure, and to make a small joke about it (in Latin.)
He knew, because he was always teaching, that I would look up the phrase at the University Library (in those pre-Internet days) and find that the Deo Gratias had a long history in the liturgy of the early Church. And he was humble enough to deflect some of the credit for success from his own offensive genius - something he was always quick to do, deferring to the play of his quarterback or the strategy of his head coach instead of taking credit for himself.
All that, in a two-word answer.
Smith, a holder of degrees from Princeton, Stanford and Harvard, could expound when he wanted. He wrote numerous books on offensive football, but was just as comfortable talking about military history or theology or business or a hundred other topics.
Yet he never came across as pedantic, or pushy. He never considered himself "above" football, or anything else. He was unfailingly gracious in conversation.
His time coaching Alabama was not long, in the way such things are measured - two two-year stints, one under Bill Curry and another under Gene Stallings. But he became a revered figure in a short time, whether it was from fans who loved to see his offense at work, or players who learned from him.
"I was blessed to have two great offensive coordinators, Mal Moore and Homer Smith," former quarterback Jay Barker said on Sunday. "But it was Coach Smith who really opened my eyes to the possibilities in the passing game. Before, I had coaches who would tell you something and maybe give you a test. But Coach Smith would make you stand up in the meeting and actually teach. He'd make you go through the entire playbook. Sometimes you'd stand up at the board for an hour-and-a-half, but his theory was, if you could teach it, that meant you knew it. And because of that, when you went on the field, everything came easily."
Smith's offenses rolled up record numbers in 1988 and 1989 with David Smith and Hollingsworth at quarterback. His return to join Gene Stallings' staff was a more qualified success, since some of his ideas were at variance with Stallings' more conservative approach. Still, he had Barker breaking records and making it to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist and winning one of the most-remembered games in Alabama history, a 29-28 classic over Georgia.
Smith coached at several other stops. He was a head coach at Davidson (and elsewhere) and is a member of that school's Hall of Fame. He had memorable stints at UCLA and spent time in the NFL, with Kansas City. But when he chose to retire, he came back to Tuscaloosa, where he was free with his time, happy to grant an interview or help younger coaches with questions about offense.
I cherish the connections I have made in more than 30 years of covering college football, but never met an individual quite like Homer Smith, polymath but polite, gentle but relentless. He would have been successful anywhere, from the pulpit to the field of battle, to Wall Street. But he chose football, because he loved it. So I got to know him for a time. It was good fortune, for which I have only two words.