East Central athletic director Gary Long knew of Seth Smith before he met him, but there’s no way to truly know the guy until you’ve met him face-to-face.
Long met Smith for the first time in 2012 for an interview as he looked to fill a vacancy atop a struggling East Central football program.
“He was a little louder than the rest,” Long said with a chuckle. “He just had that passion and I just felt like it was just what we needed to turn it around and go another direction. It was a good fit.”
It turns out Smith was the perfect fit at East Central. He’s turned the Hornets into a state title contender, going from 1-10 during his first year in 2013 to 13-0 and a spot in this year’s Class 4A state title game.
The Hornets will seek their first football state championship at 3 p.m. Saturday when they take on Noxubee County (10-4) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford.
The East Central football program was 29-72 in the 10 years before Smith took the job. Under Smith over the last four seasons, the Hornets are 33-17 and have made the playoffs each year.
Never one to hide his emotions whether it’s a raspy laugh or a good cry, Smith sat behind his desk on Tuesday afternoon as it all began to sink in — He and his team are about to play for a state championship.
“I don’t know if there are words. I think I’ve cried so much I need an IV, but it’s tears of joy,” Smith said. “You can’t thank God enough. It’s very humbling and rewarding to know you get to be a small piece of this puzzle. You get to go along on this journey with the kids and create memories we’ll take with us the rest of our life.
“Even during the 1-10 year, we talked state championship. That was our platform. We’re going to get there and that doesn’t happen if those kids don’t believe that.”
A former linebacker at Pearl River Central High School and Pearl River Community College, Smith honed his coaching skills under Dodd Lee at Picayune and Eric Collins, who is now at D’Iberville, at Pearl River Central.
“Both those guys are very demanding, but demanding in a good way,” Smith said. “Both have tons of enthusiasm and energy.”
He credits Lee and Collins for playing major roles in his development as a coach and he also points to his dad, who is simply known by “Jon-Jon” by friends and family.
“He’s always been a high-energy guy, very positive,” Smith said.
Smith grew emotional when the topic of his dad came up, acknowledging that he hadn’t seen his father in almost a year. As for whether his father will be in Oxford on Saturday, Smith said, “I hope so.”
On top of his energy and passion, Smith is great at relating to his players and getting them to go the extra mile.
“He has a gift of having a great attitude,” Lee said. “He has a gift with young people. I can see it as a head coach even more.”
Lee, who is Smith’s father-in-law, has known the East Central head coach for much of his life and he believes that ability to relate to players comes from his upbringing.
“I think it comes from his family and past experience,” Lee said. “I know his mom and dad and I know all his kin. He and (Lee’s daughter, Devin) have been an item since fifth-grade. He was a humble kid and he’s a very humble man.”
East Central players have sung Smith’s praises all the way back to his first year at the school. And for those seniors who are set to close out their high school careers on Saturday in Oxford, it’s hard to imagine playing for anyone else.
“I’m glad I wasn’t in high school yet whenever he wasn’t here,” senior running back Tony Brown said. “I don’t know what it would have been like, how exciting it is every day. Every day is the same tempo. It’s very high and we’re all excited. It’s a positive attitude and it’s great.”
As senior tight end Brad Cumbest points out, “Nobody likes a boring coach.”
“I knew if we were going to be successful, you better bring energy because kids are going to feed off you,” Smith said. “If I go out there boring and mundane, practice is going to stink and you’re going to stink. How can I sit here and tell these guys to play 185 miles an hour, go full speed and I coach like a sloth. To me, the way you coach is the way you parent kids. They’re going to be reflective of you. All our coaches do an excellent job of bringing energy.”
David Hudson serves as the East Central defensive coordinator. Kevin Fant, a former Mississippi State quarterback, coaches the defensive line and Steven Gerard handles the linebackers. Sam Huff is the offensive line coach and Donnie Wallace coaches the offensive backs.
“This is a fun group,” Smith said of his staff. “We’re all similar ages — mid 30’s and early 40’s. We have a lot in common so we have a lot of fun together. We work great together. We don’t ever use the word ‘I.’ It’s all about ‘We.’ That’s indicative of the team and the success we’ve had.”
At the end of the day, East Central’s success is a result of how Smith and his staff have connected with their players. It’s hard to imagine many more programs in the state of Mississippi that have done a better job of that than the East Central coaches.
“The first thing I like to do is let them be themselves,” Smith said of his players. “We’re going to have fun and you want these kids to learn to appreciate who they are. I tell them all the time, ‘God created you to be you and he put gifts in you. You have to use those gifts.’ We want them to appreciate who God made them to be and also teach them.
“I firmly believe football is such a great life teacher because in football you’ve got to put forth a tremendous amount of effort to be successful. You don’t have to be overly talented to be successful. You just have to try really hard and have a good attitude.”
State title schedule
Location: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, Oxford
11 a.m. — Simmons vs. Nanih Waiya (Class 1A)
3 p.m. — Winona vs. Taylorsville (Class 2A)
7 p.m. — Starkville vs. Pearl (Class 6A)
11 a.m. — Yazoo County vs. Jefferson Davis County (Class 3A)
3 p.m. — Noxubee County vs. East Central (Class 4A)
7 p.m. — West Point vs. Hattiesburg (Class 5A)