PITTSFORD, N.Y. — The mantra within the Bills organization, the obsession, really, is to beat and supplant the dreaded Patriots atop the AFC East. Which makes it somewhat ironic how well Kathryn Smith, the Bills’ new special teams quality control coach, would fit in Foxborough, given that her motto is ripped straight out of the Belichickian “Do Your Job” playbook.
Smith, the first woman to serve as a full-time NFL assistant coach, is about as laser focused on the task at hand as one could ever be, even if her current assignment happens to carry the weight of historical and cultural significance. She may be a “first”, but her mindset is narrowly defined by its first-things-first approach to her work. Quality control is by its very definition about sweating the details, and Smith doesn’t really have the time or the inclination to stand back and give us any big-picture views of her unique accomplishment. At least until she accomplishes more than just being promoted to her current role.
“My focus really is on my job, coaching and doing the best I can at it,” Smith told me earlier this month at Bills training camp, at St. John Fisher College in suburban Rochester. “I do recognize that my role has some significance, but that has never been in the front of my mind, or been my motivation. I didn’t really look at it in that light until after the fact, sort of until everyone else started to.
“I’m not trying to totally downplay it. I’m trying to keep a little bit of awareness there as to what it means, and some balance. But I don’t think it will or can be my focus. Because my focus is doing the best job I can, coaching the team, winning some games and going from there. I’m really busy.”
Smith, 31, is unassuming without being uninspiring. Over the course of a 15-minute conversation, she convinced me she’s taking exactly the right approach to a groundbreaking role for her gender, in a way that will serve her well and win her respect within the team and the league. She’s putting in the work first and worrying about everything else later. If she can’t really do the job, it won’t matter that she was the first to hold the job. A failure would define things.
“All I want to focus on is this year,” said Smith. “I want to focus on this team and see where it goes from there. Hopefully, I’d love to chase this as a career. But we’ll chase one thing at a time. This season. I’m an entry-level coach. I’m quality control. Let’s see what happens this season.”
Here’s more of my interesting interview with the former three-sport high school athlete from the Syracuse area, who went on to major in sports management at St. John’s and is now in her 14th season of holding a job in the NFL:
Don Banks: Growing up, in your wildest imagination, did you dream this was possible, being an NFL assistant coach?
Kathryn Smith: I didn’t dream of it in that specific of detail. I dreamt of it as far as if I do the best I can, if I work as hard as possible, then hopefully those things will come. That’s what you do, right? That’s what a lot of people do. You work as hard as you can and you hope opportunities come about, and these sort of things present themselves. It was more than, “Oh, I’m going to specifically be a coach.” I just got into football and I’m going to do everything I can to work my way and try to progress in this field, and fortunately it’s worked out the way it worked out.
DB: I’m told by the Bills’ public relations staff that everyone from Good Morning America to The Today Show has been after you to make an appearance. What has it been like to be you since getting this gig?
KS: To my understanding there’s been a lot of requests, but the p.r. staff here has been great at handling those and allowing me to focus on my job and focus on what I’m trying to do. So I think there has been some, but I don’t really know.
DB: There’s a woman running for president this year, and some have said that in the scope of history it’ll be the Year of the Woman if Hillary Clinton is elected in November. Any of that make your radar screen in the backdrop to your situation?
KS: I’m going to say no. The Year of the Woman, yeah, that’s good. But every year should be the Year of the Woman. I did know she was running, yes. My head is enough out of the sand at training camp to know that. But again, that’s not my focus. I haven’t really put a lot of thought in making those correlations or connections. That’s just not what’s on my mind these days.
DB: Numerous women are in professional sports, but is it tougher to be in such a male-dominated sport like the NFL, with its locker room culture being so dominant?
KS: There are a lot of women who work in professional sports. There are a lot of women who work in high positions, all across sports, and in football. One of our owners is a female [Kim Pegula]. And there are woman who work in positions where they deal with players all the time: trainers, p.r. staff, football administration, doing contracts. That kind of stuff. So I think the perception that I’m the only woman interacting with these guys is not accurate at all. The way I look at it is there are woman who hold much more prominent positions that deal with players on teams. More so than the quality control coach. So the guys are around women. There are woman doing great things in the league and in sports in general. That’s why it goes back to it being odd that I’m getting the attention, because there are women that have been and continue to do great things in sports, for teams that have males playing.
DB: You were Rex Ryan’s administrative assistant before you started coaching, both in Buffalo and with the Jets. And before that, you were with the Jets since 2003, among other things as a player personnel assistant. Do you feel like you did your part and the Bills did their part in recognizing your talent and potential in giving you this opportunity?
KS: I think so, or I wouldn’t have this job. Knowing Rex, it wasn’t a surprise. And knowing the Bills’ ownership management here, they do a really good job of when they think someone can help the team, when they think someone can do the work, that’s who they’re going to go with. And it’s that way across the board. So from that respect, that’s what I would expect from them.
DB: You have two fellow special teams coaches (coordinator Danny Crossman and special teams assistant Eric Smith). How’s the division of labor, and what falls to you?
KS: Quality control does, that’s what falls to me. That’s my job.
DB: If you see something in practice, do you stop and interject and say whatever you need to say?
KS: Yep. I mean, I know my place in that I’m the quality control coach. But they’re open to me stepping in and saying something if I see it.
DB: How often does that happen in practice?
KS: As needed. It’s like any other job. The more you do it, the more you learn, the more you get comfortable with what you’re doing. Then you grow.
DB: I’m fascinated by the idea that your parents, when asked what their daughter does, gets to say she coaches for the Buffalo Bills. Do people say, “Come again?”
KS: I don’t know. You’d have to ask them. I think they’re proud, like any parent of what their child does. [Smith gets ever-so-slightly teary-eyed at the mention of her parents.]
DB: Have you run up against any situation that’s a bit tricky and have to finesse from being a different gender than everyone else on the team?
KS: No, not really. Nothing major. I can’t stroll through the locker room at just any point. But nothing has been an issue or presented a problem for my work.
DB: Quality control work is not glamorous, is it?
KS: No. It’s my job, but it’s fun. It’s long hours, it’s grunt work, but you have to love it or you won’t be able to survive.
DB: What are you best at? What’s your strength? What does Kathryn Smith do really well that helped you get this job?
KS: I don’t know. I’m organized. Detail-oriented. Thorough. Those kind of things. I think I help in a myriad of ways in a lot of the stuff we do.
DB: Rex Ryan likes to tell a story about when you were with the Jets and he mentioned some play or formation he wanted to look at as he was headed out to practice, and by the time he returned you had that exact thing he needed to study. True story?
KS: I vaguely remember what he’s talking about. At the time he was on his way out to practice, and he was looking for something. He mentioned something about it, and I found it and had it ready for him when he came back. I think they were watching film. I didn’t really think of it as a big deal. But he’s told that story since.
DB: Where you much of a football fan growing up? And what team?
KS: I’ve always been a football fan. And the Buffalo Bills. Well, I was a Jets fan growing up. But living in Syracuse, the Bills were always followed. I was living there when they were going to Super Bowls. But I wasn’t really a die-hard fan for any team, I would say. But I really liked watching football and would watch any game that was on TV.
DB: If I told you back then, when you were growing up, where you would be today, what would you have said?
KS: I would have said, if that’s what I decide to put my mind to, that’s what I’m going to be doing.