No matter what he does, where he goes, Lovie Smith can’t get the sand out of his blood.
Not that he wants to, mind you. For Smith understands that he wouldn’t be the man he is today if it hadn’t been for the people and memories of Big Sandy.
Long before he led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl, decades before his current post as the head coach of the University of Illinois, Lovie Lee Smith was just Mae Smith’s impressionable son. He fell in love with football in that East Texas hamlet of barely more than 1,000 residents. And in Smith’s eyes, there was no greater teacher than Big Sandy’s head football coach Jim Norman.
“Every day of my life I’ve thought about what Coach Norman meant to me,” Smith said. “Every part of my career was affected by him in some form or fashion. Guys like him leave an impression, and he had the life I wanted.”
Norman died last Sunday at age 81. But his legacy lives on in the men that he coached, men like Lovie Smith, who will become Big Sandy’s first-ever inductee into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame on May 6 in Waco.
Smith returned to his hometown this weekend for Norman’s memorial service. He figured it was the least he could do for the man who taught him so much.
“First and foremost, he was a family man. He loved children, and he loved developing boys into men,” Smith said. “He wanted you to do right on and off the field. Education was a responsibility. … He ingrained that belief in us.”
Those Big Sandy teams of the early 1970s carried a grit matched by very few schools. The Wildcats won three consecutive Texas Class B state titles from 1973-75. Over a five-year span, Big Sandy recorded an incredible 64-1-1 record.
David Overstreet, who went on to greatness as a running back for the Oklahoma Sooners and the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, carried the load on offense. And Smith distinguished himself as a ball-seeking missile on defense.
Big Sandy’s 1975 squad overmatched its opponents, scoring a then-national record 824 points while surrendering only 15 points. The Wildcats logged 11 shutouts in 14 games.
“It all came back to values first,” said Smith, who starred as a linebacker and defensive end for those teams. “Coach Norman believed in putting 11 athletes on defense who could run, so that quickness and speed is partially what made us so tough. … But ultimately, it came down to discipline. Defense is about gap control, and Coach ingrained that into us.”
Watching Norman closely, Smith felt a calling on his life to coaching. He continued his playing days at the University of Tulsa after high school, becoming a two-time All-American. He also met his future wife, MaryAnne, on a blind date at the school, an even better takeaway than his degree.
Injuries prevented Smith from pursuing a professional football career. But, then, the coaching life had already begun to dig its claws into him. A circuitous journey awaited, as Smith has coached at seven different colleges and three NFL teams during a 37-year career. That included nine seasons as the head coach of the Chicago Bears, where he joined one of his old mentors Tony Dungy as the first black coaches to lead a team to the Super Bowl. Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts topped Smith’s Bears, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI.
Now he has landed in Champaign, as he’ll kick off his second season guiding the Fighting Illini in the fall.
Yet no matter how far out of East Texas he travels, Smith tries to remain true to the lessons first imparted to him in Big Sandy.
“It was an unbelievable hometown, it really was,” Smith said. “It’s amazing that I’m the first one from Big Sandy to make the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame. I feel like Coach Norman should be in for sure. He is extremely deserving.
“The way I see it, I’m representing him and all of Big Sandy.”