WAKE FOREST - In Earl Smith's first varsity football game, so many years ago, he caught the winning touchdown, giving Ledford High its first season-opening win in school history. Smith has been a part of turning around high school programs ever since. , Staff Writer
As head coach, Smith turned around the Millbrook program in the 1980s and in the past couple of years, he's taken Wake Forest-Rolesville -- a team that had never won a conference title -- to two straight Cap Seven championships.
Smith has earned a reputation as a program builder. His teams pay attention to the details.
"It gives you a chance to succeed if you focus on the little things and the details," said Bucky Brooks, who played for Smith at Millbrook and went on to play at UNC and in the NFL.
Smith is proud of Brooks, now a sports writer for Sports Illustrated.
The two remain friends.
And Smith remains close with his coach at Ledford, UNC running backs coach Kenny Browning.
Ledford, in the small Piedmont community of Thomasville, had been struggling when Browning arrived.
"They had won four games in the six years before I got there," Browning recalled.
Browning turned things around with the help of Smith and others.
"There's not an easy way to do it," said Browning. "You have to work smart."
Smith was an assistant coach to Browning at Northern Durham High, and Smith, 54, gives Browning a lot of credit for setting an example that he follows.
Go to one of the Cougars' open practices and you'll see a highly organized workout, orchestrated with precision.
Smith often talks into a megaphone, but he is not one known for harsh tones.
"We're a positive coaching staff," said Smith. "No berating."
The typical two-hour workout is laid out on a spread sheet, with players rotating through eight stations on the field.
Said Smith, "Every minute is accounted for. Every second. One thing we never do is waste time."
Smith said he cares dearly about being a good role model, about his family, and about what's in the best interest of his athletes.
Brooks remembers Smith's family being around the team. Smith's two daughters, now adults, have gone on to have successful business careers, another source of pride.
"His whole family was involved," said Brooks. "You saw how important family was to him."
Smith gives credit for his success to his players, his coaches, and programs that have given him the resources to flourish (currently he has about a dozen assistants, though some are volunteers).
"I rely on them heavily to teach the fundamentals to the players," said Smith.
He also spoke of the support of the community, remembering the small-town pride that surrounded Ledford in his youth.
Now that the Cougars, heading into Smith's fifth year as coach, have met their initial objective, the goals have been raised.
A state championship is on the mind.
"You set a goal," said Smith. "The greatest satisfaction is to see it come together."