Kathryn Smith on women coaching in the NFL: 'Get your foot in the door'

AP Photo/Bill Wippert

"I feel I get a mutual amount of respect. ... If I'm asked my opinion or if I see something I want to point out, I can say it, and it's not like it's dismissed. I feel like my opinion is valued," Kathryn Smith says.

Kathryn Smith always wanted to pursue a career in sports, and that goal translated to the historic move of becoming the first full-time female coach on an NFL staff. Earlier this year, she was named the special teams quality control coach for the Buffalo Bills.

We talked to Smith about her role in the Bills organization, how women can break into coaching in the NFL, and how she handles being the first full-time female coach in the history of the league. Also, what would she do to improve women's standing in the league if she were commissioner for a day?

This interview has been edited for length.

espnW: Do you think players treat you differently from the other coaches?

Kathryn Smith: I really don't. It's not like I see them interacting with other coaches in a certain way and then being completely different when they interact with me. I feel I get a mutual amount of respect. You know, I'm quality control, I'm on the lower rung, so I'm not out there yelling at players to do this or that. But if I'm asked my opinion or if I see something I want to point out, I can say it, and it's not like it's dismissed. I feel like my opinion is valued.

espnW: What is your typical day like?

KS: It's mostly breaking down film of our previous game and film of our future opponents, getting the game plan ready for meetings, and helping out the special teams coaches in practices. Basically, I assist them in all the prep work. It's a one game, one week, one season at a time kind of approach.

espnW: What has been the most difficult part of being the first full-time female NFL coach?

KS: Honestly, all of the added attention. It's odd, being an entry-level coach, because I'm just trying to get my work done -- not that it's been necessarily bad, but it's been something that other men in my position haven't had to deal with on a regular basis.

When I step back and look at it, the reaction is understandable, but it's not what we expected. I think it was a bigger deal outside of the [Bills] organization because no one knew who I was. Here, it wasn't a big deal. I'd worked with [head coach] Rex [Ryan], and some of the other players and coaches before.

espnW: How do you shut out negative comments you hear from fans in visiting stadiums?

KS: As much as you cannot hear it, I don't hear it. But at the same time, fans are heckling everybody. I haven't felt like it's been extra worse for me, and it's not like I'm the only one getting heckled. They're yelling at all of us as we come out of the tunnel. All you can do is tune it out and focus on the game.

espnW: How does your presence on the coaching staff make the Bills better than or different from other teams? What makes having you on staff unique?

KS: My hope is that it's the work ethic that I bring -- doing my job and paying careful attention to detail. If I can do that better that someone else in my position, then we're at an advantage.

espnW: What advice would you give to a woman who's trying to break into NFL coaching?

KS: My advice would be: Get in where you can and do what you can to the best of your ability; work hard and be persistent, but also be patient because it's not going to happen overnight. I know I keep saying this, and it sounds cliché, but it's important: If you do the best job, that's what's going to help you advance. It's all about who's doing a better job, because ultimately teams just want to win.

espnW: If you thought it would improve your chances to get into the NFL, would you go the college coaching route?

KS: I think for anyone, if you think something is going to help you advance your position then, yeah. Really, at any level, if it's going to get you more experience and get your foot in the door, it's definitely worth it. For me, I'll always look at each opportunity as it comes up and see what makes the most sense, and what would be the best fit.

espnW: If you could be commissioner for a day, what would you do to give women more opportunities in coaching?

KS: To me, it's important that it's an equal footing thing. I think women should get the same opportunities for doing the same amount of work to get there. You shouldn't not get a job because you are a woman, but at the same time you shouldn't just get a job because you are a woman.

I think I would do something at the entry-level side of things, like internships, to help women grow and develop the same way men get to. I think in the long run that would be the best way to do it because it would be a more organic way to progress.

espnW: Do you think there are opportunities for women to break into NFL coaching staffs?

KS: When you look around the league and other organizations, you're seeing more women on the field. Maybe not necessarily on coaching staffs, but as trainers and in a variety of departments at the organization level. I'm not the only woman on staff here who works with the players. It's growing. You can see it more at the college level, and it's translating to the NFL. And I think it will continue to grow and move in that direction.

espnW: Does the public have a misinformed opinion of what locker rooms and coaching staffs are like?

KS: There are women around the players in all aspects, and it's not as extreme as it's made out to be. There are incidents here or there that get all the attention, and that's not the way it is for most of the time. It hasn't been my experience with the players. They are great guys.

I mean, if you have 53 guys on a roster, maybe one guy says or does something. But you could take 53 of any type of the population and the overwhelming majority act like adults and are professional.

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