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After what his St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) football team accomplished during the 2008 season, it didn't take long to determine that longtime Raiders head coach George Smith was a leading candidate for 2008 ESPN RISE National Coach of the Year.
|George Smith is the first Florida coach to be named Coach of the Year since 1970.|
Considering his accomplishments this season and his tremendous 32-year career, giving the award to Smith became even easier. Smith is the first winner from Florida since 1970.
Smith figures to be inundated with coaching honors for the 2008 season, and that only makes sense. On Tuesday of next week, he is receiving the American Football Coaches Association Power of Influence Award at the AFCA national banquet in Nashville.
In addition to guiding St. Thomas Aquinas to a 15-0 record, a second straight Florida Class 5A state title and the ESPN RISE mythical national title, Smith also won the fifth state title of his career. In his 32nd year at STA, he has an overall record of 333-65. He also has been runner-up in the state seven times.
Smith's 2008 team was expected to be strong, with numerous returning starters from 2007's 14-1 club. But it's never automatic for any team in powerful Florida, and to strengthen his team's schedule even more (Smith also is the school's athletic director), he accepted a bid to play Ohio power Elder (Cincinnati) to open the season at the Kirk Herbstreit Varsity Challenge Series.
"We got down 10-0 early in the game, but we were unpracticed and untested while they already had one game and two scrimmages under their belt," Smith recalled during an interview on Wednesday after he attended a ceremony at the school to honor the 2008 team. "We came back to win, but the whole thing about that trip was that we were together for 44 hours, and out of 103 people who traveled, we didn't have one single issue that came up. The experience couldn't have been better in bringing us together."
After getting past Elder 35-24, the Raiders went on to dominate the rest of their schedule, including a 56-7 romp past Lakeland in the Class 5A state final. Just two years before, in 2006, Lakeland was the No. 1 team in the nation. Elder also went on to have a strong season as it reached the Division I state final in Ohio and was the top-ranked team in highly competitive Cincinnati.
"The whole point of each season is that you've got to get the kids to believe that they can get better and better each week," Smith said. "That happened this year after we played Miramar and their top quarterback, Eugene Smith. We beat them 49-2 and we just got better and better. A lot of teams I've seen as they get down the stretch toward the end of the season didn't get better."
As with any coaching honor, Smith was quick to credit his staff of assistants and his players.
"Anytime a coach is recognized like this, you have to immediately point your fingers at your staff and your players," he said. "If the players don't buy into what the staff is telling them, then there's no success, and that's where the recognition comes."
Defensive coordinator Rocco Casullo and offensive coordinator Bryan Baucom headline Smith's staff. Former NFL receiver and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter also helped out with the receivers.
Smith shows no signs of slowing down heading into his 33rd season. St. Thomas Aquinas also shows no signs of giving up its status as the No. 1 all-sports school in Florida, a designation it has had under Smith as athletic director every year since 1995 when that honor was begun.
Perhaps the best testament to Smith's legacy in South Florida is who attended the ceremony held at the school on Wednesday. Among those present was legendary NFL coach Don Shula. Two of Shula's grandsons have been coached by Smith, and Shula and Smith have become friends.
Click here for a complete list of Coach of the Year honorees.
Southeast: George Smith (St. Thomas Aquinas, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Midwest: Tony Annese (Muskegon, Mich.)
Southwest: Gary Joseph (Katy, Texas)
West: Mike Alberghini (Grant, Sacramento, Calif.)
Mark Tennis is the deputy sports editor of ESPN RISE.