When Rodney Smith first approached Johnny Tusa about the University High School football coaching job, Tusa wasn’t sure he was serious.
“A guy walks into your office and says, ‘I want to be the football coach,’ and you’re the basketball coach, you say, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” said Tusa, Waco ISD’s athletic director.
But then Tusa’s phone started ringing. Endorsements from Smith’s friends and colleagues arrived. The idea began to crystallize in Tusa’s mind that Smith wasn’t joking about his interest in the job. At that point, Smith became a top candidate.
And now the job is his.
Waco ISD introduced Smith as University’s new football coach and campus athletic coordinator at a press conference on Friday morning. His hiring was approved by the school board at an executive session meeting on Thursday.
As Tusa alluded to, Smith will shift over from the basketball coaching ranks. He heads up University’s No. 1-ranked boys basketball team, which opens the UIL playoffs on Monday night against Jacksonville. But Smith is hardly a stranger to the game of football. He played both football and basketball at University and at Baylor, and started out his coaching career as a secondary coach under his old football head coach, LeRoy Coleman.
Smith said that he has quietly chased the dream of coaching University’s football program for years.
“It’s been on my mind,” Smith said. “Like I told the (school board) last night, when Coleman got out of it, I kind of wanted it but I didn’t have anything established. So I understood that they had to go and find someone. One thing about it, I kept my faith. And I stayed a Trojan. And the good Lord blessed me with my turn.”
Tusa said that he interviewed nine people for the job, mostly coordinators at other schools as well as a head coach from the Houston area. Several impressed Tusa, but what sold him on Smith was his knowledge of the University situation and loyalty to the school.
“The one thing that kept turning us toward him was, ‘Who’s going to be here if this thing doesn’t turn out quickly?’ I didn’t want to entertain the idea that I had to probably go get somebody every year because they didn’t know how hard it would be,” Tusa said. “He knows the inside story. And when you want something that badly, knowing the inside story, then you’re more likely to hang in there and sustain and persevere.”
Challenging doesn’t begin to describe the task facing Smith. University’s last football victory came in the 2013 season, as the Trojans have lost their last 36 in a row.
Smith hopes he can coax a few more athletes to the football program, but he understands that a turnaround won’t be an overnight project.
“We’re going to be competitive. We’re going to compete,” Smith said. “We’re going to be very fundamentally sound. At the end of the night, as long as we leave it on the field, I don’t care what the scoreboard says, if we leave it on the field I’m going to be happy with that.”
Smith will finish out the basketball season, stressing that he remains “100 percent committed” to the postseason challenge ahead of the Trojans. He’ll transition to the football job following the end of the basketball season, at which point Waco ISD will post the basketball opening, Tusa said.
As Smith stood and smiled and fielded questions on Friday, resplendent in a bright purple tie while standing in front of a University banner that declared the familiar motto “Once a Trojan, Always a Trojan,”he looked like a guy in it for the long haul.
“I’m excited for him and about him because he bleeds purple,” Tusa said. “How many people can you hire or prick that bleed that particular color? It has to be infused. It’s already in his veins.”