Coming upon a UCLA football practice, one at first notices only tangential and frivolous details: the fluffy yellow pads the size of watermelons that defenders wear on their forearms, the nearly erotic ease with which Running Back Freeman McNeil absorbs the impact of the ball as he takes it from Quarterback Tom Ramsey.
But gradually, if one looks long enough, larger patterns emerge: how the receivers slip along the seams between cornerbacks and safeties, how the linemen coordinate their protection of the quarterback like water buffalo ringing their young. At length one may see this meticulously timed and repeated activity as embodying order blossoming into chaos and then shifting back to order again.
Blue-clad assistant coaches scurry and shout after their charges. One man, with a serious mien and a constantly outstretched arm and pointing index finger, as though it is imperative that he always be in a posture to instruct, holds in his other hand a piece of paper on which plays are written. He is Homer Smith, 49, the coordinator of the UCLA offense. He moves, watching from different angles, talking to the quarterbacks, talking more loudly to a tight end who seems confused about his assignment on a draw play. Once Smith accompanies the backs on a sweep, staying beside them with a precise, sprinter's stride, shouting, "I want speed! I want speed!" The paper with the plays is crumpled in his hand. He has to smooth it out before the work may continue.
When an offensive lineman goes offside, Smith yells, "Bruins!" His tone is one of pain. "Front!"
November 24, 1980
At once the players fall to the ground, their faces in the dusty turf. Then they leap to their feet, running in place, knees high, eyes searching for the cause of this punishment.
"What's going on?" Smith shouts, still wounded. "Front!"
Again the players hurl themselves down and come churning up.
"I'll take the blame...front!...for last week...front!...but if you lose again...front!...it's your own fault!"
The week before, the Bruins had had a record of 6-0, were second in the polls and, halfway through their game with Arizona, had been presented with the news that No. 1 Alabama had been beaten by Mississippi State. Yet in the second half Arizona held off UCLA to win 23-17.
Now Smith and Head Coach Terry Donahue seek to ignite some emotion in their players for a game with Oregon, two days away. They hold races, the fastest players sprinting through a corridor of howling teammates, running for the honor of the defense or the offense.
At practice's end, the Bruins' faces, Smith's included, show a flushed, unguarded unity of purpose. Back in his small, functional office Smith is still breathless, animated. "It takes a while to come down from practice," he says. "I get all juiced up." It seems a physical love. "It is a fierce kind of joy I have in teaching," he says. "Seeing a skill I've helped develop taken into a fight, seeing it used with courage, that's addicting. You crave more of it."
Of Smith, Donahue has said, "He's the best teacher I've ever seen in football. There's an air about him, made up of his education, his command of the language, his character. I've seen players sitting in his presentations almost awestruck."
With his joy in it and his excellence at it, Smith seems born to be a coach of football, and for 22 years that's what he was. But in February 1979, after leaving the head coaching position at Army under difficult circumstances, Smith entered Harvard Divinity School and embarked upon a two-year course of study that will lead to a masters degree in theological studies. His stay at UCLA is temporary. How he reached his decision to veer away from coaching, and how he'll use his studies are best understood by examining the whole of his life, which in its recent stages is not so much an odyssey as a purgatorio, a tempering.
Smith spent his childhood in Omaha, where his father ran a Ford dealership. It is still managed by a brother, Roy. His other brother, Dean, was a 9.6 sprinter for Stanford. A good student—"though football was all I thought about from the seventh grade on"—Smith went to Princeton, where he was president of his class in his sophomore, junior and senior years, captained the football team and in 1952 and 1953 was named All-East and All-Ivy League at single-wing fullback. For two years after graduation he was an Army artillery officer at Camp Chaffee, Ark. and then earned an M.B.A. at Stanford. He remained in Palo Alto through January 1961, as freshman football coach and director of recruiting, before going to the Air Force Academy, where he was both a defensive and an offensive back-field coach. His first head coaching job was at Davidson in 1965, and he took the Wildcats to the Tangerine Bowl in 1969. He spent two years coaching University of the Pacific, and two more as an assistant to Pepper Rodgers at UCLA, during which time the Bruins' record was 17-5. There Smith worked with a young line coach named Donahue. In 1974 Smith got the assignment at West Point. "In all honesty," he says, "the honor of it was so immense, I couldn't truly believe I was the head coach of the United States Military Academy."
The honor and the reality of the position were quite separate. In the years after Vietnam, West Point was no longer seen by many high school seniors to shimmer with the light of MacArthurian duty. Besides, height and weight regulations and the five-year service commitment that must be undertaken by every cadet further complicated the recruitment of prime football talent. And once mustered, the Army team had as little time for practice as any in the land.
Army's alumni, as one might imagine, aren't the most passive or accepting of men. The result is enormous pressure on the coach to win, regardless of the Point's football handicaps. "I always had within myself a fair acceptance of the risk," says Smith, "an understanding of the reasons why football coaches are always being fired for the wrong reasons."
More difficult to accept were disruptions such as four players' involvement in the Academy-wide honor-code violations of 1976 and a written ultimatum to Smith from the top brass that required seven victories in 1977, including one over Navy, for him to keep his job. The team went 7-4 and beat Navy 17-14, "but that just postponed things," says Smith. After that season he was given only a one-year contract.
West Point has a peculiarly divided chain of command when it comes to football. Thus, Smith was powerless in 1977 when Army officials took all recruiting responsibilities away from his civilian offensive and defensive coordinators.
Yet, what most disturbed Smith were practices which he felt were contrary to NCAA regulations. Smith has copies of memos he wrote to Athletic Director Raymond P. Murphy, who is no longer at the Point, Superintendent Lieut. General Andrew J. Goodpaster and Deputy Superintendent Brigadier General Charles W. Bagnal, setting down his "worry about being close to the law" and urging "exactitude" in compliance with the rules. In comparison to recent scandals in intercollegiate athletics, the offenses Smith felt had been committed, such as feeding extra meals to prospects who came to West Point for physicals, telling B-squad coaches to recruit and not counting visits from prep school recruits against the NCAA-allowed number, seemed minor. The issue, however, was honor.
"The West Pointer is an indispensable figure in the defense and management of our country," says Smith. "You can't have the students under pressure to live up to that tough, tough honor code, where they pledge not to tolerate lying, cheating or stealing, without the institution itself being exact in its adherence to rules. I heard all this talk about honor and I was worried, because we were into things that were clearly illegal, and I simply wasn't in control."
Smith's last years at Army were ones of spreading doubt. "The nature of coaching is that with repetition it can come to seem static," he says. "Another year of recruiting, work, organization. I began to regret being submerged in football to the exclusion of all else."
Always a man of deep and clear belief, Smith felt a "nagging desire to get involved in the religious side of things." In this he was encouraged by his wife, Kathy, and later, when he had inquired about courses of study, by Harvard.
The 1978 season was unlucky. "We had some injuries," Smith says. "We lost some games we shouldn't have." On Dec. 2 Navy beat Army 28-0 in Philadelphia. A day later Smith addressed the team at lunch on the way back to the Point. There was silence as he spoke. "Men, I had to win," he said. "And I didn't. I'm history. I hope you get a great coach and he keeps the whole staff."
The Smiths reached home and saw a neighbor turn her back as they drove up. Kathy was in tears—that a game should have come to this. "Let's make a move," said Smith. "Let's drive on to Cambridge." And they did.
The next morning Smith telephoned the Army football office. Assistant Coach Ed Wilson told him to call his brother Dean's number in Omaha. When he did, Smith learned Dean had been killed when his car skidded on ice and hit a train.
The Smiths drove back to West Point that day. Deputy Superintendent Bagnal came to their house, Smith recalls, with a typed statement. He could barely read it. "My brother is dead," he said.
The statement was Army's announcement that Smith's contract wouldn't be renewed. It spoke of his management shortcomings, of a need for "revitalization" of the program. "They wanted it clear that they had fired me," Smith says. "I wanted to resign—to exit gracefully. I will never understand the coldness of that action."
Smith went to his brother's funeral. "I had people standing around at the funeral home asking me questions about football. It was the most awful thing in the world," he says.
In his distress, Smith released a statement listing the rule violations which he felt Army had been committing, and detailing the "organizational hell" he had worked under. He asked as well for an apology. None was forthcoming. In October of this year, after hearings based on Smith's charges, the NCAA reprimanded Army. Earlier Army had undertaken some corrective action.
"I think I was terribly wrong in insisting on an apology from an institution," Smith says now.
On Feb. 1, 1979, Smith entered Harvard's 350-student divinity school.
The Harvard Yard in April of 1979 appeared hard and cold in an unrelenting early spring sunlight. A couple of blocks down from the University Bookstore, the Smiths welcomed a visitor into their second-floor apartment in a chocolate-colored house built around 1860. The flat was full of polished wood and soft carpet. Titles from Solzhenitsyn to Michener were on view, along with a number of obscure-looking texts. Smith's classes for that semester were: Religion in China, Toward a Christian Understanding of God, The Essentials of Islam and Religion Under Communist Rule. "I've studied as though I was starved for it," he said. "The desire has grown to the point that now I shudder when I think I might not have done it."
Smith has always had some of the attributes of an effective clerical speaker—a sincerity of voice, a habit of coming down hard on key words. "Part of my being absorbed in this has to do with how shattering it is to lose one's career," he said. "I almost had to make this kind of plan, to lose myself. But beyond that, I'm fascinated by conflict, especially the unnecessary nature of so much of it. For example, I just took some cookies down to a Muslim social hour, to some people who'd helped me prepare a report on Islam. I was impressed again by the harmony that seems so natural among worshiping people. How we get from that to conflict is my area of interest. In the end, I hope that my transcript will show at least one course from each of the many areas of worship."
Smith was the careful academic, making only one point at a time, cautiously building his case. "Human beings are going to worship," he said, citing the constancy of religious observance in places where it is discouraged. "And it follows that since people are so similar during worship, whatever the liturgy or tradition, that worship itself is a great common...if not bond, then irreducible fact. It's when you mix it with politics that things get complicated. I don't believe, for example, that this nation can lead, as it has in the past, by backing people down. The world cannot keep putting $550 billion a year into preparations for war. Another approach must be to dissolve those differences that have religious formulations, to drain the hate out of them, to just keep saying we've got to get along, we've got to understand each other until we collapse from exhaustion."
Smith found the Divinity School itself "unexpectedly humble. I am with brilliant people who possess daring minds, but the courses are pursued with a Christian sense of humility."
Such a frame of mind, the guest ventured, might not come easily to that symbol of authority, the football coach. Smith grinned. "I'm trying to shed a little ego here. Ego is time-consuming and can be blinding, and there is no doubt that coaching football nurtures one's ego. It's tied to the kind of individual who succeeds, the bold, aggressive man who can live in that pressure focus. My strategy is to study every day, to accept what comes and ease away from that part of me that puts me in conflict with other people. What we talk about here is real worship, not rituals or hierarchies or dogma, but worship, the common denominator in the mystery of God, and shared, even if it seems only wonder at what we don't understand. I don't want to conflict with another man in that."
The visitor departed thinking that Smith wasn't so far from restoring order in his own soul and from being ready to work for understanding across lines of belief. An offensive coach indeed.
Throughout his time at Army and then at Harvard, Smith talked on the phone, as coaches will, with Donahue, who had become UCLA's head coach in 1976. Soon after Smith arrived at Harvard, Donahue planted the seed for Smith's return to football. On Feb. 25, 1980 Smith took a leave of absence from divinity school and returned to Los Angeles, buying a house in Woodland Hills, 17 miles from the UCLA campus. Kathy followed in April. "It was partly a matter of finances," he says. "And partly because the idea grew in me. There was a deep need to get back on the field."
Donahue, for one, was ecstatic. "When I knew I had a chance to get him back here, it was one of the most exciting days of my coaching career," he says. A boyish man, Donahue is purposefully informal. "Homer has lifted my burden in that I know the game plan will be done with the same attention to detail as if I did it myself. That's freed me to be more of a head coach, to see to player problems, to put up with the press."
Smith has said that the UCLA program might be the only one in the country where a strong-willed former head coach of 49 would be welcome as an assistant to a coach of 36. "It is like all relationships between capable men," says Donahue. "It has its tensions, but whenever Homer lets me know I've screwed up—do you notice that we talk differently?—he does it so artistically that it's never a challenge to me. I'm learning."
"Well, I'm not coaching with the aspirations I had before," Smith says. "I'm no longer climbing the mountain." Not long ago he circulated to his colleagues a statement of his situation as a student, explaining he has completed 10 of the 16 one-semester courses he needs to finish at Harvard and sketching a remarkable plan for flying back and forth, starting in February of 1981, to take Harvard midterms, participate in UCLA recruiting and spring practice and take his divinity school finals.
Kathy works in the UCLA recruiting office, "to pay the plane fare for all the spring travels." She's devoted to her husband, though not without a sigh. "No predictions from me on what next," she says. "Homer loves this game. He so missed the association with the players. And it's good to have his career end, if it does, on a lot higher note than the way it did at Army."
But Smith keeps that end vague. "My desire is to stay at UCLA until the quarterbacks can get to precisely the right play against each defense they see and execute it professionally," he says in his memo. "Beyond that, to secure a teaching job where I can develop in the subject of the world's religions."
"It is man's unique distinction that in the duality of his composition heaven and earth meet."
Marius Bewley, commenting on the metaphysics of John Donne.
"...If not, then heaven and hell."
Homer Smith, after UCLA lost to Oregon 20-14 on Nov. 8.
The integrity of college football has had far finer years than 1980. Scrutiny has turned up a clandestine brokerage of no-work classes and extension courses and the presence of assistant coaches whose value to their teams apparently consisted of figuring out ways to get transcripts altered. Five schools, including UCLA, have been ruled ineligible for the Rose Bowl by the Pac-10 because of academic violations. Not many coaches publicly denounced the cheating as flatly, morally wrong.
Two weeks before UCLA defeated Arizona State to improve its record to 7 and 2, Smith sat over a meal in the UCLA student union and pondered these recent events. He began with an examination of pressure, which inevitably follows, he said, "from playing the game in front of people who demand to have hope, demand to win.
"To justify the championship pressure, you have to look at the bottom, the kids just beginning at the base of the pyramid. I know it is good for these tens of thousands of young people to try to be players, if only for a little while. Part of what we do must be physical. Athletics take the place of the most destructive of physical options, of war, of drugs. It is good to stimulate play among us, and if that means pressure at the top, so be it."
Though this is essentially a conservative view, Smith quickly pointed out it's not one that acquiesces to a poor response to pressure, namely cheating.
"Pressure by itself is not an adequate explanation. It is augmented by coaches feeling that they have made no agreement among themselves. The rule-making is done by the college presidents and athletic directors and faculty representatives, and once institutionalized in the NCAA and its enforcement machinery, the rules and their keepers can come back to the coaches seeming almost like an alien police, an outside enemy, without moral force."
Seemingly the coaches' dilemma is easily drawn: Either the pressures are of irresistible weight, crushing even the best of them, or they are strong enough to resist, and so are culpable if they cheat. But it is always some of both, of course, which makes it impossible to judge without knowledge of each situation. Yet Smith's voice rings with assurance when he says, "Football coaches, head coaches, are, in the vast majority, honorable people, good people."
To permit the integrity of such men some influence in their world, Smith outlined the beginnings of a plan. "If honor is generated in groups," he said, "and it is, in schools, in the military, then our failures have not been caused by people so much as by institutions which have no structure whereby you get peer approval for honor." Whereupon, Smith suggested such a structure.
"If all major-college football coaches could get together, they could agree on a code that would give stability and identity and justice. You would have to have an amnesty for old violations because you couldn't possibly untangle the past. But coaches are starved for a chance to start fresh, where the honor of everyone there would be pledged to uphold rules that we adopt, not a remote police force."
The crucial work of such a convocation would be to take pressure off coaches. "Goodness, if everybody kept his promises, we'd still lose half our games each week," he says. "It's easy to accept losing games. It's the lost jobs, the disrupted lives that are hard to bear. And if the truth be known, stable programs are the way to win. Look at the Steelers, the Cowboys. So coaches should share the pressure. The team captains should be responsible for emotional readiness. The quarterbacks should call all the plays. Contracts for a coach's services should be honored to their ends by both parties. And a pledge should go out to all interested elements, the alumni, students, community business people—the components of the pressure—so that all could sign on as part of this moral rebirth."
His plan roughly presented, Smith sat back with the alert expresssion of a good teacher ready to defend it against an unconvinced student. "How would it be enforced?" he said, before he could be asked. "By simple peer pressure. We will have formed our own tribe. If 10 pledged and one defaulted, he could be squeezed out by the other nine."
Might not, it was suggested, the coaches' code quickly deteriorate into yet another level of institutional rule?
"It might, but only if I'm wrong about the moral quality of football coaches. I'm not naive. I've talked with other assistant coaches about what goes on in the real world. I've felt their moral helplessness. If some are cynical, most are not. The profession can cleanse itself."
Examples were given, of coaches floating from school to school, or in from the pros, with seemingly no regard for promises. "I think you ought to have to go through a gate," said Smith with some asperity. "Have an initiation where you are given the word on honor. You ought not get in without pledging yourself. I know you couldn't put me in that position without creating a huge obligation to live up to my promises."
We shall stop here, for this reference to his own honor is where Smith's case must rest, on his ability to liken his brethren to himself. Can a man so hopeful of order clearly apprehend those who are ruled more by renegade impulse, by competitive fevers? In the end, it seems a question of faith, as it perhaps was bound to be if Smith is involved.