Kathryn Smith's Bills promotion isn't surprising to those who know her work

Fagan, MacMullan on Kathryn Smith hire (1:16)

Kate Fagan and Jackie MacMullan react to the Bills hiring Kathryn Smith as a full-time assistant coach. (1:16)

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Joey Clinkscales, the Oakland Raiders' player personnel director, was on the road for a scouting trip Wednesday evening when he saw the headline scroll across the bottom of his television screen: The Buffalo Bills had become the first NFL team to hire a woman, Kathryn Smith, as a full-time coach.

After seeing the news scroll by again, Clinkscales picked up his phone and texted Smith, who worked in the New York Jets' scouting department beginning in 2005 and was Clinkscales' administrative assistant until he left for the Raiders after the 2012 draft.

"Is that you?" Clinkscales, formerly the Jets' vice president of college scouting, texted Smith. He then congratulated Smith and told her he was proud of her.

Clinkscales could have done a double-take when he initially saw the report. But he worked alongside Smith as she made the jump from intern to full-time player personnel assistant in 2007, so he wasn't shocked to learn that she had been named to a special-teams quality-control role for the Bills.

"The things that have happened to her, at least in my opinion, [are] no surprise because she’s always been bright and diligent," he told ESPN by phone Thursday. "So none of that is a surprise."

Smith, 30, might be called a pioneer in the male-dominated world of NFL coaching and might be considered a champion of female causes in professional sports, but she hasn't been an activist with a megaphone, persuading an NFL team to take a chance on her as a coach.

In fact, she never told Bills coach Rex Ryan -- her boss since 2014, when she became Ryan's assistant while he was the Jets' coach -- that she wanted to be a coach.

"She never really expressed that desire until I asked her if she would like this opportunity," Ryan said Friday. "I don't know if [she] even knew it existed."

A native of DeWitt, a Syracuse suburb in New York, Smith played lacrosse, swam and was part of the bowling team at Christian Brothers Academy, a private Catholic high school with a strong athletic program. Her brother was on the football team; she kept stats at the games, and credits her father for sparking her interest in a football career.

Smith traveled south to New York City to enter the sports management program at St. John's University in Queens, where she was one of two female student managers for the men's basketball team while also interning for the Jets -- first as a game-day and special-events intern and later as a college scouting intern.

"She really had her heart set, when we were in school, about being involved in the NFL," said Matt Abdelmassih, who also was a student manager for St. John's at the time and is now an assistant coach for the Red Storm.

The Jets hired Smith as a full-time player personnel assistant after she graduated. Her duties included organizing communications between Clinkscales, then the college scouting director, and his college scouts, putting in data collected from scouts and assisting with college and veteran free-agent visits to the team's facility.

"That really laid my foundation for working with the coaches, because I was able to get a lot of background, learn a lot of football stuff through working with the scouting department," Smith told WGR 550 on Thursday. "Learning about the players and the positions and all that."

Even then, Smith's role did not make her unique among women in the NFL. Nancy Meier, the New England Patriots' longest-tenured employee, has handled similar administrative duties for the Patriots' scouting department since 1975. Other women have held or continue to hold prominent roles in football operations for NFL teams, including former Raiders CEO Amy Trask and current Dolphins executive vice president Dawn Aponte.

So when did Smith, who Clinkscales said wasn't involved in tape breakdown or player evaluation when he was employed by the Jets, make the transition "downstairs" to the coaches' offices?

It's a story that seems pulled from the TV series "Mad Men," set in the gender-divided workplace of early 1960s America.

Like Peggy Olson, a secretary who earned the respect of executive Don Draper and carved out a role for herself as a copywriter, Smith caught the attention of Ryan two years ago.

Ryan's assistant, Laura Young, who now holds a similar role with the Bills, became general manager John Idzik's assistant in 2014. That led Smith, who Ryan had first met at a football camp run by Eric Mangini before Ryan became the Jets' coach, to move from the scouting department to become Ryan's assistant. In a meeting that season with then-Jets and current Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, Ryan mentioned a unique blitz scheme their opponent that week had used against another team.

Knowing the team's computer film system, Smith told Ryan that she could pull up the play on the screen to see if it resulted in a sack. Dismissing the idea, Ryan told her that he didn't think it was a sack, and left for practice.

Upon returning to his office, Ryan had a diagram and film of the play set up on his computer by Smith.

"Coach, is this what you were talking about?" she asked him.

"Yep, that's it," a startled Ryan responded.

"I was like, 'Oh my goodness,' " he recalled Friday, adding that the moment made him believe "she could really do this one day."

The next step for Ryan was getting Smith exposed to coaching, both on offense and special teams for the Jets in 2014 and again with the Bills' special teams this past season. Even while still serving as Ryan's administrative assistant, she began to spend time with Bills special-teams coordinator Danny Crossman and special-teams assistant Eric Smith, a former Jets safety.

The departure earlier this month of Michael Hamlin, the Bills' special-teams quality-control coach in 2015, prompted Ryan to think about the possibilities for Kathryn Smith.

"Number one, I think she can do the job," Ryan said Friday. "Because the first thing about quality-control work, this is one of the most thankless jobs when you look at it, but one of the most important. But you just don't get through it. You’ve got to put the hours in. ... I started that way, we all do. Where you're drawing things up, where you do all that.

"I've seen her do it over and over. I saw her on the personnel side when she had to handle every single scout's report that she would type into the deals. The organization of that part of it. I think while maybe she never knew at the time, and I never knew it at the time, I think it was giving her training to get to this level as a coach. And I believe she's going to be successful."

Though Smith told WGR 550 on Thursday that she is currently analyzing special-teams tendencies for the Bills' opponents next season and she doesn't know what her role will be beyond that, Ryan said this week that she will be on the field during practices, helping to run the special-teams scout team, and that she will have a role on game days.

Those duties will be unique for a woman in the NFL, but Clinkscales doesn't think the players will have trouble adapting.

"She's a quality-control coach and the people who know her have always respected her ,and she's always demanded respect by her actions," he said Thursday. "So if that's her role, once she's on the field, again, I don't think she'll have an issue getting her point across, saying what she means and meaning what she says. ... All athletes want to be coached. And those guys who are open to coaching will take in what she has to say and probably be better for it."

Ryan emphasized that making history wasn't part of his thought process in the promotion.

"That wasn't something we went out and purposefully did," he said Friday. "I just felt good about hiring Kathryn, but it wasn't something that, 'Hey, we want to do something that groundbreaking' or something. That wasn't it at all, to be honest with you. In fact, I had no idea it would get this much attention. I can promise you that. But if it brings other opportunities on the high school level, college level, professional level, for women, I think that’s great."

Smith, who said she will "start here on the coaching track and just go from there," has conducted only one interview -- on the team's official radio show -- and doesn't feel special despite the flood of attention this week.

"There's so many women that work in sports, that work in football and the NFL specifically with the teams, here with the Bills," she said. "There are a lot of women around that maybe nobody specifically has been named a coach before, but there are certainly women in this organization."