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.
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.
2008 ESPN RISE Regional Football Coaches of the Year
East: Bill Cherpak (Thomas Jefferson, Pittsburgh Hills, Pa.)
Cherpak, a former lineman from the University of Pittsburgh, led Thomas Jefferson to a repeat state Class 3A state title. His team finished 15-1 with 15 straight wins after it went 16-0 in 2007. In their final game, the Jaguars rolled over Archbishop Wood (Warminster, Pa.) 34-7. Cherpak has now directed teams to three state titles in the last five years. In the last six regular seasons, Jefferson has gone 52-3 and has outscored its foes by some 1,500 points. Cherpak's 14-year coaching record at the school stands at 153-26.
Southeast: George Smith (St. Thomas Aquinas, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Also named the 2008 ESPN RISE National Football Coach of the Year.
Midwest: Tony Annese (Muskegon, Mich.)
Annese actually resigned from his job last February, but agreed to come back two months later when negotiations with two possible replacements fell apart. Despite losing 18 starters, the 2008 team at Muskegon turned out to be perhaps Annese's best. He has gone 91-15 in nine seasons, and his team repeated as state champion. The Big Reds (14-0) also were the top-ranked team in Michigan this season. They won their state final 34-14 over De La Salle (Warren, Mich.), which also came into the contest unbeaten.
Southwest: Gary Joseph (Katy, Texas)
After an 0-2 start, Joseph pumped up Katy to a repeat Class 5A Division II state title. Joseph's team went 16-0 in 2007 and was No. 2 in the nation. Many players had to be replaced, which contributed to the slow beginning. By the end of the season, though, the Tigers (13-3) were arguably as strong as they were at the end of 2007. In the semis, Joseph's team thumped 13-1 Smithson Valley 41-19, and in the final, the Tigers shut down Wylie 17-3. Coming into that game, Wylie was averaging 38 points per game. Joseph is in his fifth year and already has two state titles.
West: Mike Alberghini (Grant, Sacramento, Calif.)
Coach A, as he's known, is a fixture at Grant. He started working at Grant 40 years ago and was highly successful -- at first coaching baseball, with two teams ranked among the top five in the state in the 1980s. He switched sports to football, and in the past 18 years has a 192-32-1 record with six CIF Sac-Joaquin Section titles, 15 league championships and 18 straight playoff appearances. The 2008 team ended 14-0 and beat nationally ranked Long Beach Poly 25-20 to win the CIF open division state bowl title. Grant finished at No. 10 in the final ESPN RISE FAB 50, and Alberghini already has been selected as the CalHiSports.com State Coach of the Year.
Mark Tennis is the deputy sports editor of ESPN RISE.