11 Sep Former-NFL Head Coach Measures Victories Differently
Mike Smith Scores Big in Unicoi County
To measure the success of a pro football coach over a 15-year career, you must look at more than the win column. Looking at the totality of former Atlanta Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith’s career as a coach in the NFL finds him coaching in 14 playoff games, a rout in one Super Bowl victory and a near miss in reaching another trip to the big game. Yet, Smith says finding Unicoi County as a home is one of his great achievements.
“Growing up in Ormond Beach, FL, the first time I ever experienced snow was on my recruiting trip as a high school senior to East Tennessee State University. I passed through Unicoi County along the way to his visit. That moment left an indelible memory.” Smith finished his college career as a top linebacker in his conference and an offer to play in the Canadian Football League, but he never forgot his years in the mountains of east Tennessee.
Soon came an offer to be a graduate assistant at San Diego State where he met future Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick who introduced him to his future wife, Julie, a New Mexico small town girl. Between the Aztecs and a one-year stint at Morehead State was his second brush with Unicoi County.
“I worked for a few months during the summer before joining the staff at Tennessee Tech at Frank Gentry’s Christmas Tree Farm in the mountains. I brought Julie along and she fell in love with the people and the mountain life of the county.”
Brian Billick called in 1999 upon becoming the Head Coach of the Baltimore Ravens and offered Smith a job in the NFL as a defensive line coach and his pro football journey was underway. “By the second year we scored an amazing blow out of the Giants (34–7) in Super Bowl 35. That day everything worked on defensive, and it was one of my greatest moments as a pro football coach.
Next came five seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars and a late season call from the Atlanta Falcons. “One day I’m a defensive coordinator and the next, I’m interviewing for the head coach’s job in Atlanta.” On January 28, 2008, the Falcons announced Smith as Head Coach after Bobby Patrino had resigned the job with three games left in the season.
“Beyond that Super Bowl win while with the Ravens, my most memorable moment in the NFL was our first win in our very first game as a Falcons Head Coach. Our team showed so much guts in turning the team around,” Smith became the franchise’s winnest coach by number of wins and 2008 NFL Coach of the Year by the Associated Press. Sporting News gave him the honor in 2008, 2010 and 2012. In 2012, his 50 total wins in 71 games ranked third best all-time among NFL Head Coaches. Smith’s Falcons lost 28–24 to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship that year.
Departing in 2014 to become Defensive Coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Smith later left the NFL in his rearview mirror in 2018. Seeking an ideal life without football, Smith returned to Unicoi County to find a home.
“More people need to discover what I’ve found in a perfect mountain home in Unicoi County.”
Former Atlanta Falcons Head Coach
“It’s the unlimited options for enjoying the outdoors, and it’s the people made the choice easy for Julie and me. After years in the craziness of pro sports, it was time to enjoy life. It’s the little things, like marveling at the wonders of looking at a snow-capped Beauty Spot Mountain, driving up to Coffee Ridge to buy some fresh-picked apples or find bear tracks in your yard that lets you know that you are in the midst of something you can’t buy in a big city,” Smith explains. But Julie and Mike do more than just look, they embrace, activities in the mountains.
“One day we’re fishing for smallmouth bass on the Nolichucky River, and the next we’re hiking on the Appalachian Trail or looking for Morel Mushrooms along a mountain ridge for our dinner that night. I love float fishing down the Nolichucky or fly fishing on Rocky Fork, says Smith. “We also like the downhill part of mountain biking.”
Smith thinks more people are in search of what he has already found after the turmoil of a pandemic and urban riots of 2020. “I know that folks in urban metros are looking for room to breathe. A place where it’s easy to social distance. A place where there are four different seasons that offer summers that aren’t too hot and winters that aren’t too extreme—And the people are truly friendly, honest in their dealings and generous beyond belief. Like a neighbor that brings over a basket of fresh picked tomatoes or strawberries and ask nothing in return,” says Smith.
The former coach still maintains a home in north Atlanta where he formed friendships and a place in Florida for wintering, but about seven months a year, you will find him and his wife in Unicoi County for the best part of the year. Between his hiking boots and golf shoes, Mike Smith has written a best-selling book with Jon Gordon You Win in The Locker Room First. He is working on a business venture and a curriculum for training youth coaches to introduce children to team sports.
“I’m busy in chasing my passions today. Near the top of the list is living where there is room to think and breathe in Unicoi County. Draw a five or 100-mile radius of my county address, and I can find most anything I seek. Even when I drive up from my north Atlanta home, I can get to Unicoi County more quickly than sometimes drive to south Atlanta—and it is a much more beautiful drive. More people need to discover what I’ve found in a perfect mountain home in Unicoi County,” Smith concludes.