As the first day of fall classes ended at University High School, the announcements blared over the public address system just before the bell rang.
Students were congratulated for completing the first day. They were warned that buses will leave very quickly after school, so be ready to go. They were told that any hats and visors would be collected on the second day of school, so don’t wear them.
Then, finally: “Last announcement from Coach Smith, our head football coach, anyone interested in playing football needs to see him. If you are not riding a bus, you can see him after school today. If you are riding a bus, see him sometime tomorrow.”
When you’re taking over a program that’s lost 36 straight games, you’re looking for help wherever you can find it.
First-year football coach Rodney Smith wants to return the program to its former glory, like when he played for the Trojans in the early 1990s. Like when Pro Football Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson lit up the field when he played later in that decade.
But Smith knows it’s going to take baby steps. That’s why he’s looking for volunteers from the student body. That’s why he’s trying to find athletes from other sports like basketball player Justin Williams, who will play safety for the Trojans.
Smith understands it’s a major task to build University’s roster, but beyond that it’s going to take belief. Lots of it.
“My number one goal is to get these kids to believe again, and it’s going to happen,” Smith said. “We’ve got to change the culture, and we will. We’re working on a mindset, and it’s not easy. But the kids are responding and we’ve got some great coaches who are putting in the work.”
Smith has tried to get across to his players that they’re not just playing for themselves. They’re playing for their school, their fans, their families and University alumni.
“There’s a lot of people in South Waco who wish they could come back and play this game for University High School,” Smith said. “That’s what I try to sell to these kids. We’re playing for somebody bigger than yourself.”
Smith wants to turn the Trojans football program around so badly that he gave up his highly successful head basketball coaching job. Smith had turned the University basketball program into a perennial district champion that was ranked No. 1 in the Class 5A poll part of last season.
But Smith’s love for football never died. Especially University football. He was a star quarterback for the Trojans before becoming a defensive back for Baylor, and always had a passion for the game.
So when Keith Willis stepped down as University’s head football coach following last year’s 0-10 season, Smith told Waco ISD athletic director Johnny Tusa that he was interested in the job.
“Football was always a goal, and sometimes you’ve got to do other things to reach a goal,” Smith said. “Basketball offered an opportunity. When this thing opened up my eyes got big. So I talked with Coach Tusa about it. He told me he was going to hire the best and right guy for the job. By the grace of God here I am today.”
Smith retained much of last year’s University coaching staff but he also added two key new assistants: offensive coordinator Tony Miles and defensive coordinator Maurea Crain.
Crain is a 1989 University graduate who went on to play defensive line for the Iowa Hawkeyes. He’s got an impressive coaching background, with stops coaching defense at Troy University, Valdosta State and Tyler Junior College.
Last year, he worked under Willie Williams at La Vega High School, but the opportunity to return to his alma mater was too great to pass up.
“Once a Trojan, always a Trojan,” Crain said. “This is where I played, where I graduated from. Why wouldn’t I want to come back?”
One of the biggest reasons Crain returned to University was because he believes Smith can turn the program around.
“He’s competitive and detailed and he’s extremely competitive,” Crain said. “If we’re playing tic-tac-toe he wants to get two moves before you get one. He’s a South Waco kid. This is his home, too. Every place is a challenge. Part of the allure for me was the fact that as Trojans we’re pretty resilient. At some point we’re going to get into a groove here where hopefully things change.”
Like Crain, Miles also believes Smith can change the culture of University football. Miles played at Mart in the mid-1990s and coached at University for several years before coaching at Midway last season.
Miles always wanted the opportunity to coach with Smith, so when he got the head University job he jumped at the chance.
“I believe in his vision, he’s a good friend of mine,” Miles said. “We kind of made a pact a long time ago if he ever got this opportunity we would stay true to our word. I see some kids eager to win. They’ve had some tumultuous times but I think the future is bright.”
Since the Trojans only return one offensive and three defensive starters, Smith is literally having to build the program from the ground up. But Jordan Perkins, who will play quarterback after starting at safety last season, can already sense that attitudes are changing on the team under Smith’s direction.
“He takes teams and does something to them you can’t explain,” Perkins said. “It’s going in the right direction right now. We can’t think about the past. We’ve got to focus on the future. Coach Smith is preparing us for what’s ahead. We can determine what’s ahead of us.”
Every day is a learning experience for Smith, who is trying brush up on his football coaching skills after coaching basketball for so long. He’s like his players in that regard: They’re all in this rebuilding project together.
“I’m still a student of the game, just like I was in basketball,” Smith said. “Throughout my coaching career I’ll keep on being a student of the game. I don’t know half of what I need to know. I’m always calling a lot of coaches I know who are very successful and try to pull on their coattails a little bit.”