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Lunch with Mimi: Terry Smith

on April 07, 2016 1:00 PM

When James Franklin was hired as Penn State football’s head coach in 2014, he brought with him many of his assistants from Vanderbilt — all of whom had no prior connection to Penn State. There was one notable exception. Franklin hired former Nittany Lion receiver Terry Smith, who had been the wide receivers coach at Temple, to take over as cornerbacks coach on his staff in Happy Valley. 

Smith had never expected the opportunity to come back to Penn State, so he jumped at the chance when Franklin called. He enters his third season on Franklin’s staff, this year as not only the cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator, but also with the added title of assistant head coach.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Smith at the Allen Street Grill in State College to talk about his memories as a Penn State football player, the challenges of being a recruiter and assistant head coach, and what is it like to be a member of Franklin’s staff.

Mimi: Welcome Terry Smith. I have seen you on the field back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Before we started, I asked you how you like recruiting, and you indicated that it was pretty interesting, but there is the problem with 17- and 19-year-old kids who change their minds. Tell me a little bit about that.

Terry: Recruiting is an ongoing, challenging piece that’s critical to the success of our program. Clearly, each kid that we look to bring into the university has to fit our culture. They have to fit our program and our needs.

Mimi: What are some of the different things that distinguish Penn State?

Terry: Well, academically we want a good student. We want a sound student. Socially, we want a student who typically hasn’t gotten into any type of trouble in his background. We want, typically, a kid that’s a good family-type person because we have a family atmosphere here in our office and on our team. And then, clearly, he has to be a good athlete. He has to be able to perform on the field and be able to perform in high-pressure situations, because we hope to and expect to play in the Big Ten Championship or the national championship. We want guys that can handle that moment.

Mimi: What’s your secret to success to get one of those guys?

Terry: The secret to success is to build relationships. You build trust over time. You recruit a guy, and you recruit him and his family.

Mimi: You might be recruiting a guy for three years.

Terry: Yeah. You know, there are freshman that are pretty special.

Mimi: So, that’s four years.

Terry: There are guys like that. We recruited a kid that I actually coached against when I was still at Gateway High School. I was the head coach at the high school a few years back, and he ended my high school career by beating us, and I said we need to have him on our team.

Mimi: Did you get him?

Terry: We got him. We signed him this past February. He will be coming this fall.

Mimi: You don’t mind identifying him?

Terry: Yeah, we’re allowed to talk about him now. His name is Miles Sanders.

Mimi: Oh, I read about him! You got one of the better ones.

Terry: He’s the number one running back in the nation. He’s from Woodland Hills High School — it’s a neighborhood of Monroeville.

Mimi: You graduated from Penn State in 1992. Did you feel like you were coming home? What did it feel like?

Terry: It was surreal — kind of like, Wow, is this really happening? I had never dreamed to come back and work here. When I left school and I chased playing professionally, I never dreamed to coach. And then my dad was reading the newspaper and saw an ad for a high school assistant position. He said, “Why don’t you try that?” And I went out there and tried it for a year, and I really started liking it. And each year, I just kind of got a little more involved in it, and, before you know it, I was the head coach of Gateway High School. Then I left there and went to Temple University under Matt Rhule, a Penn Stater, and one year there and Coach Franklin called me and wanted me to come join him with his staff here. But I never really thought about it, never really dreamed it would be a possible goal.

Mimi: And now here you are. Tell me a little bit about the Coach Franklin.

Terry: Well, he’s a dynamic leader. He’s very, very passionate. He believes in the people around him — the players, the staff, and the coaches. He’s family-oriented. He keeps everyone close to him.

Mimi: It’s hard to do that.

Terry: It is hard to do that. It’s a big organization, and there’s a lot of moving parts to it. But he has a relationship with each and every person in there. There are little things. Like when we get a student trainer, a new student trainer for maybe a season, he makes it a point to go meet them because he doesn’t want to see a new face in the building that he’s not familiar with.

Mimi: Tell me some of your memories of Coach [Joe] Paterno.

Terry: I can remember it like it was yesterday. When he speaks at you, he speaks with a high-pitched voice. I can just remember him calling me. When I came to Penn State in 1987 and I was 132 pounds, which is considerably small, he believed in me. He trusted in me and gave me enough confidence to believe in myself to be a special player here. He had that knack about himself with all of his players. We didn’t always understand the message while we were in it, but once you graduated and disconnected a little bit, you really understand the message. It’s kind of like parents to kids — you don’t always understand what your parents are telling you, but as later in life you become an adult, you understand. He’s molded and shaped me.

Mimi: That’s very nice to be able to say that.

Terry: He changed a lot of people’s lives.

Mimi: He did a lot of things for other people. Do you do a lot of things for other people? Have you started to do that?

Terry: Yeah, I try to. My wife and I, we’re involved with Special Olympics. My daughter has Down syndrome, so we’re really involved.

Mimi: And you have just the one child?

Terry: I have my son, Justin King, who played here in 2005.

Mimi: I remember him.

Terry: He played receiver and cornerback. He was drafted and played in the NFL for some years. Now he’s got a family — a wife and daughter.

Mimi: You’re a grandfather!

Terry: I’m a grandfather. But we try to give back as much as we can.

Mimi: Do you have friends here outside of football? What do you do for fun?

Terry: When we do get some free time, we like to vacation. This year, I’m going to take my wife to Hawaii. We always take an annual trip to Disney for my daughter.

Mimi: How old is your daughter?

Terry: She’s 17 now. She still loves Disney, or really the Orlando area. I think my wife likes Disney more than my daughter! We do that every year. And then we’re going to go to Punta Cana this summer, as well. And then every August, when I start football camp, my wife, my daughter, and her side of the family go to Cape May and rent a house for a weekend. So they go to the beach and relax.

Mimi: There are two things that are happening that seem to be more prevalent than ever before — players are getting their degrees early and playing a fifth year someplace else, and the other thing is so many of these kids commit and then decommit. What’s wrong with what’s happened with the process?

Terry: I don’t know if there’s a definite “wrong” in the process. Let’s deal with the student-athlete that graduates and then transfers. Most times when a student-athlete graduates and then transfers, it is typically because he isn’t playing as much as wants to play. So, it has nothing to do with the university. It has nothing to do really with the staff. He just isn’t playing full time like he wants to play.

Mimi: And he has future plans. He’d like to go to a higher level.

Terry: Correct.

Mimi: So, this is a vehicle to do that.

Terry: Correct. And the way the NCAA rules state is that’s the way he can do it — once he graduates, he can transfer to another school without having to sit out a year. And then the way training takes place — we train our kids all year-round — all of our student-athletes attend summer school. That’s how they get ahead to graduate a little bit earlier. And our graduation rates are continuing to grow. Coach Paterno set a great standard of being a student-athlete, and we’re continuing it. Coach Franklin and our staff, we’re continuing to set records each semester with that.

Mimi: It’s important. What about this committing and decommitting?

Terry: I don’t know what the solution is, but young people need a little more guidance, a little more adult help in making these decisions because next to getting married or having a child, this may be the most critical decision of their life — where they decide to go to school and play for that team or university. There are a lot of student-athletes out there that don’t have the proper supervision to help them make those decisions.

Mimi: I want to thank you really for the pleasure of getting to know you, and I wish you the very best in the upcoming season. We hope it is a great one! Thank you!

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