GREENVILLE, N.C. – Rick Smith, whose illustrious football coaching career spanned four decades and covered professional, college and high school levels, announced his retirement as East Carolina’s assistant head coach and defensive backs mentor Thursday.
Included in his collective 36 collegiate seasons are nine with a Pirate program that produced six bowl game appearances, a pair of conference championships, back-to-back scoring defense statistical titles and a combined 132 interceptions under three head coaches – Skip Holtz, Ruffin McNeill and Scottie Montgomery.
“There’s always a beginning and there’s always an end,” Smith said. “After a 45-year career, I’ve decided to take (wife) Barbara’s subtle suggestion that it is ‘time to come live in her world.’ My family and faith has guided me through many journeys and the time has come for me to be there for them as we start a new one.
“I’ve been blessed to be around so many special people and I’ll certainly miss the day-to-day relationships I have with my players, helping them grow in life. I’ve always stressed the value of an education and I’m exceptionally proud of the fact that most all my players have earned a degree. We love East Carolina and plan to remain in Greenville, a place that has been so good to us. We can’t thank the Pirate fans enough for their support, encouragement and many kind words over the years.”
After serving as ECU’s defensive backs coach from 2005 to 2009 and enjoying a run of four-straight postseason showings with Holtz, Smith rejoined the Pirate staff in January, 2013 as McNeill’s defensive coordinator before being immediately retained by Montgomery last year. Additionally, he was promoted to assistant head coach status on Feb. 3, 2016.
“I would be understating our emotions to simply say Rick will be greatly missed,” Montgomery said. “He’s positively impacted the lives of so many young people as a coach, teacher, mentor and father figure. While the bond he had with his players ran deep, his unwavering commitment to our staff and program was equally as unparalleled. Rick is highly regarded by everyone in our business and having the opportunity to work with him was a privilege.”
In his initial season during his second tour of duty at East Carolina, Smith exceeded the first-year success he enjoyed in 2005 with a foundation-building, impacting-producing, bowl-winning campaign in 2013 despite inheriting a unit that ranked 75th nationally in passes intercepted, 87th in total defense, 88th in scoring defense and 107th in pass defense a year earlier.
In addition to developing 10 all-conference performers, including second-team selections in outside linebacker Derrell Johnson, free safety Damon Magazu and end Lee Pegues, Smith’s defense ranked among the nation’s top 50 units in four of five major categories and stood 13th at the FBS level against both the pass (18 interceptions) and run (116.7 yards per game allowed).
Under Smith’s direction as defensive coordinator, the Pirates surrendered less than 100 rushing yards in six contests alone during the 2013 season, a feat last accomplished in 2009 — ironically, Smith’s final year at ECU during his first stop in Greenville. After giving up a combined 185.6 rushing yards per game, 430.0 total yards per game and 36.1 points per game from 2010 to 2012, the Pirates promptly responded to Smith’s tutelage by significantly trimming the numbers down to 116.7, 368.8 and 24.8 in just one year of work.
Smith offered an encore in 2014 by ranking 11th nationally against the run (111.8 ypg) and 13th in defensive third-down percentage (34.2), while also standing among the country’s top 40 units in interceptions (29th/14), pass efficiency defense (37th/120.21) and total defense (37th/367.3 ypg).
The Pirates held seven opponents under triple-digit yardage totals on the ground and featured the nation’s ninth-leading tackler in junior linebacker Zeek Bigger, who became the first ECU defender to reach 140 stops since 2003. Nose tackle Terry Williams, linebacker Brandon Williams joined Bigger on the All-American Athletic Conference squad, while cornerback Josh Hawkins was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award after topping the secondary with five interceptions and 11 pass breakups.
Before re-joining the East Carolina program, Smith served as assistant head coach with oversight of cornerbacks and safeties at Big East Conference member South Florida for three seasons beginning in 2010. His efforts aided a defensive unit that ranked 17th nationally in total defense (317.9 ypg), 22nd in scoring defense (20.0 ppg) and 24th in pass defense (192.3 ypg).
After joining Holtz’ first Pirate staff, Smith quickly provided the revamped ECU defensive backfield with an immediate lift, molding a unit that finished the 2005 campaign ranked among the nation’s top 20 in pass defense, allowing only 184.9 yard a game. His schematic preparation also allowed for 15 interceptions during the year before topping that mark in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 with 16, 17, 22 and 17, respectively – figures which ranked 21st, 25th, fifth and 16th nationally.
Smith directed the efforts of two all-conference selections in first-year safety and top team tackler Van Eskridge (104) along with veteran cornerback Travis Williams in 2007 before developing cornerback Emanuel Davis into a five-time all-freshman honoree in 2008, one of which was an All-America designation from Rivals.com. Of the 22 interceptions, which were the most for a Pirate squad since 1994, five came against Tulsa in the C-USA Championship Game victory against the nation’s top-ranked offense.
Smith’s secondary helped East Carolina to a No. 2 pass defense rank that year in the explosive and offensive-heavy C-USA statistical standings with a 197.2 ypg mark.
In 2009, the Pirate backfield played a key role in ECU’s No. 5 FBS standing with 34 forced turnovers and a conference-best 21.9 defensive scoring average, and turned in another notable title game performance by intercepting Houston quarterback Case Keenum three times, including the game-clincher with 42 seconds remaining.
Prior to arriving at East Carolina, Smith served a one-year stint as a defensive backs coach for Berlin in NFL Europe, where he helped lead the Thunder to a league-high 15 pass thefts, a 9-1 record and a 30-24 World Bowl victory over the Frankfurt Galaxy in June, 2004.
Before heading overseas, Smith spent two seasons as co-defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech in 2002 and 2003 after handling recruiting coordinator, assistant head coach and secondary duties at Southeastern Conference member Kentucky during the previous season.
While Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator, Smith’s unit stood fourth nationally in turnovers gained (34) in 2000 to help the Bearcats to a 7-5 record and an appearance in the Motor City Bowl. Before his two-year tenure at UC, he headed the Tulane defense where he played a pivotal role in the Green Wave’s No. 7 national rank and undefeated (12-0) campaign in 1998, which was capped by a win over BYU in the Liberty Bowl. In 1997, he helped Tulane to a 7-4 mark while topping the nation in interceptions with 26.
Smith enjoyed an earlier seven-year stay at Kentucky, and from 1987 to 1989, he worked under legendary College Football Hall of Fame inductee Grant Teaff at Baylor. His appointment as the Bears’ secondary coach followed a season on Ray Perkins’ staff at Alabama.
In all, he has played an integral role helping squads reach 12 bowl games during his career, which includes postseason showings as defensive coordinator at Tulane, Cincinnati and ECU, along with other invitations while at Georgia Tech, Alabama, Kentucky and USF.
His career began in 1971 at the prep level, coaching football and baseball at Tallahassee’s Godby High School before serving as head coach and athletics director at Wakulla (Fla.) High School from 1975-76.
Smith, who will turn 69 in March, is married to the former Barbara Reddick and they are the parents of three grown children – Beth, Steve and Billy – and four grandchildren (Katie, Dylan, Brady and Alaina).