Terry Smith happy to be back ‘home’ at Penn State

STATE COLLEGE – After a couple of meetings and a few phone calls, Terry Smith endured “a long weekend that seemed like it took forever,” before Penn State football coach James Franklin officially extended a job offer “asking me if I was interested in coming home.”

Smith practically raced to his car.

“I accepted immediately,” he told a throng of reporters at Beaver Stadium on Friday after Franklin unveiled his first Nittany Lion coaching staff. “It’s a rare opportunity to coach where I played. I’m tremendously excited.”

So is Franklin, who has kept in touch with Smith since the latter’s days as Gateway High School’s head football coach and athletic director.

“I’m a guy who keeps a list [of prospective assistants],” Franklin said, “and he [Smith] was on that list a long time ago.”

Franklin smiled, “We gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

After spending 10 years at Gateway, his alma mater, Smith began his collegiate career last season by coaching the wide receivers at Temple and will now eagerly plunge into what he considers a dream job.

A standout receiver for the Lions (1988-91) – his 108 catches still rank among Penn State’s all-time reception leaders – Smith will coach the defensive backs, and he will also bring a key recruiting connection with the WPIAL.

“That was very important, but it was more than that: I wanted to have somebody I was comfortable with,” Franklin said. “Some guys have a presence. He [Smith] has a presence.”

Gray speckles dotting his beard, Smith (44) is young enough to relate to today’s players and old enough to respect Penn State’s tradition, of which he is a proud part.

He’s the only former Lion on the staff as Franklin brought seven of his nine assistants from Vanderbilt.

“It’s great to have Terry back here,” said Wally Richardson, the head of the PSU Lettermen’s Club and a member of the search committee that delivered Franklin. “It’s a good fit for everybody. He’s a well established coach in Pennsylvania and has a great deal of respect.”

Smith said recruiting territories haven’t been etched in stone, but he anticipates he’ll be handling “all or most of” the Pittsburgh area.

“I would think it would make sense for me to go out there with my connections of growing up there,” he said. “We’ve lost some ground there, and there are guys each year going to other Big Ten schools or ACC schools. We want to go back to Western PA and get the guys we want. [Former Lion assistant] Tom Bradley had it locked up really well, and I have some big shoes to fill, but I look forward to the challenge, and hopefully we can get the four-five-six kids each year from there who deserve to be at Penn State.”

Smith has stayed close with the program over the years. His stepson, Justin King (along with Derrick Williams), led a rescue from the dark years (2000-04), and, at Bill O’Brien’s invitation, Smith was part of a panel of past players who helped keep the roster together following the NCAA sanctions two years ago.

Still, when he walked back into the Lasch Building earlier this week – “I almost forgot how nice it is here,” he said – and he could not help but think of Joe Paterno.

“When I played here, I was scared of Coach Paterno. I’m wondering if a shadow might pop up,” he said, grinning. “You feel his presence. He built this place. He’s the man that made Penn State what Penn State is, and we have to acknowledge that.”

It was Paterno’s advocacy that helped make Smith the first African-American head football coach and athletic director at the Quad-A level in WPIAL history.

“Joe Paterno was instrumental in my life,” Smith said. “He recommended me for both positions. He called the administration at Gateway on both occasions.”

Smith sees Penn State “still in the process of healing” from the Sandusky scandal, and he feels strongly of the role football can serve.

“Over the course of history, Penn State football helped build this university and build the mystique of Penn State,” he said.”When I was a high school coach, I was a big teacher of history – where you come from. Here at Penn State, we obviously have a lot of history and a proud tradition. I help to represent that history.”

Beginning today, he’ll start adding a new future to that history, and it’s difficult to imagine that James Franklin could have made a better choice.