A self described "overachiever," Gene Smith returns this weekend to the state where he developed the strong work ethic that earned him the position of Jaguars general manager in January.
A native of Monroeville, a "village" of about 1,400 people in north central Ohio, Smith was actually raised about four miles outside the city in a rural farmland house. His father, Delbert, worked construction and instilled in his seven children that "if you work hard enough you will never have to look for it."
Smith lives each day by that motto, whether it's at home with his wife and two daughters or at the office running a football team. It's well-known among people inside the stadium that Smith only sees daylight this time of year during the club's afternoon practices. He arrives well before sunrise each morning and is among the last to leave the building well into the night.
Otherwise, he is camped inside his office poring over film or meeting with scouts as they prepare for the evaluation of a new crop of NFL prospects while also improving the Jaguars current roster.
Smith had no doubts about running an NFL team when he was selected by Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver. He has been at every level of football from playing at Division III Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, coaching at Division II Edinboro University in Pennsylvania and Ohio University and spending 15 years in the NFL as a talent evaluator.
"I've worked my way up; I've earned my opportunities," Smith said. "I don't feel like I'm better than anybody else. I think where I have a competitive edge over a lot of people is my work ethic. I learned a long time ago that your work ethic will dictate your future success the most, and it's the one thing in life you have complete control over. And so for me I know it doesn't guarantee success but it gives you a heck of a chance for it, and I don't expect out of anyone on our staff anything more than I expect out of myself."
I sat down with Smith this week to discuss his return to Ohio and some of his favorite memories of his childhood rooting for the local team.
Let's get the hard question out of the way. How many stoplights are there in a town of 1,400?
Smith:There is one main stoplight at the heart of downtown.
Are there any well-known people to come out of Monroeville?
Smith:There is such a sense of humility with people in that area that I don't know if I would say "well-known," but we have two high school wrestlers (Logan Steiber, 125 pounds, committed to Ohio State; Chris Phillips, 171 pounds) who are ranked number one in the nation in their respective weight classes and are Olympic hopefuls. My high school coach, Steve Ringholz, is in the Ohio High School Hall of Fame. Wooster head basketball coach Steve Moore has won over 600 games in his career and ranks sixth among active coaches at his level. He was Coach Ringholz's high school teammate and roommate at Wittenberg College. Legendary football coach Paul Brown was born in Norwalk, Ohio and noted inventor/scientist Thomas Edison was born in Milan. Both villages are neighboring communities of Monroeville.
You have talked before about developing your work ethic under your father, Delbert. Is that also a trait of the people of Monroeville?
Smith:It's blue collar, a place where you roll up your sleeves and people take pride in their ability to provide for their families. Strong work ethic is the fabric of the community as most of the people are farmers and construction workers.
You once said your dad told you that if you work hard you'll never have to look for it. Is that where your desire to outwork everyone came from, or was it competing with five brothers and two sisters?
Smith:It came primarily from my dad. I worked construction with my dad every day that I was on break or vacation from school, starting in junior high all the way through graduate school. My dad took great pride in everything he did and he knew how you did your work was a reflection of who you are. He set our kitchen clocks 20 minutes in advance because he believed that being on time was important to being successful. He never missed a day of work and he never complained. He was a general contractor so if he didn't work because he was sick then he didn't get paid, and he had nine other people depending on him. Both of my parents have passed and they were loyal to each other and their children. They sacrificed so much to take care of all of us.
You played under Steve Ringholz in high school and still remain close to him. He visits Jacksonville throughout the year and is often seen at practice. How has the relationship grown over the years?
Smith:It's always been close but after losing my parents it has grown through the years. He's a great sounding board and reference of knowledge. He's very direct and honest and knows that between two extremes there's usually common sense and good judgment that should prevail.
Take me back to your coaching days at Edinboro University under Tom Hollman. How did this experience help you for what you are doing now?
Smith:He was a highly successful high school and college coach. I coached defense, was the recruiting coordinator and strength and conditioning coordinator all at the same time. In smaller colleges, you have to wear more hats. Edinboro had never been to the national playoffs and we made five NCAA Division II playoff appearances during my tenure there. Tom Hollman was very disciplined in his approach and we rarely beat ourselves. We were the best conditioned team on the field and well-prepared. He really believed in ensuring that as coaches we played to our players' strengths and that we emphasized fundamentals every day. He knew if we had conviction for what we were teaching, the players would have confidence in what was being taught.
I imagine you grew up a Browns fan living so close to Cleveland. What are some of your favorite memories or favorite players?
Smith:I grew up a diehard Browns fan. Cleveland is a very storied NFL franchise with great tradition and actually has 16 players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Jim Brown is arguably the greatest running back of all time, but Otto Graham was the first Brown player inducted into the Hall of Fame. Otto Graham converted from running back to quarterback once he became a Brown and led the team to 10 league championship games and won seven. Now that's incredible. My dad talked a lot about Otto Graham and his ability to lead his team. I grew up following Sam Rutigliano, Brian Sipe and the Kardiac Kids, and those were some exciting times for Cleveland Brown fans.
You are now returning to Cleveland as the general manager of an NFL team. There is no question that your parents would be proud of what you have accomplished.
Smith:It's an awesome feeling coming back home, as I know my parents are proud of all of their children. Ohio is a true football state and the sport is a way of life at every level. Legendary NFL coaches from Paul Brown to Don Shula to Chuck Noll are from Ohio. There are a tremendous amount of college head coaches from the state of Ohio as well. Most people know that Woody Hayes is an Ohio native, but so is former rival Michigan coach, Bo Schembechler (he's from Barberton, Ohio).