It had been almost two years since Terry Smith had been “home.”
He was back at a time when Penn State and then new coach Bill O’Brien needed him most. He joined a group of former Nittany Lion players trying to convince the current players to stick with the program in the wake of the Sandusky scandal and heavy NCAA sanctions.
Now, the former record-setting Penn State receiver is back and will be doing his best to convince new players to come “home.”
Smith, along with eight others, officially was named as an assistant coach on new head coach James Franklin’s staff on Friday. He is the lone member of the new staff that has any direct ties to the Penn State program.
Happy Valley couldn’t be any happier right now for Smith, the former Gateway High School star and coach, who was serving as an assistant coach at Temple until he got a phone call from Franklin.
The new Nittany Lion and former Vanderbilt head coach had met Smith when Franklin was recruiting Gateway players and seeing them at camp when he was an assistant at the University of Maryland.
Smith made enough of an impression that Franklin added his name to the notebook that he keeps of potential staff hires.
And with an opening on staff, Franklin delved into that notebook.
“Coach Franklin called me and I was out on the road recruiting for Temple and asked if I would be interested in coming back home,” Smith said. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Following a formal interview and several phone calls, Smith waited to hear whether he had made the cut.
“Through a long weekend, it seemed like it took forever,” Smith said. “Sunday morning, Coach called and offered me the job and I accepted immediately. I’m tremendously excited about the opportunity to come back home.”
“I was always so impressed with him, the fact that he was able to leave the high school ranks and get some college experience was very important as well,” Franklin said of Smith. “Then for us to be able to get a guy with really strong Penn State ties on our staff I thought was very important and I’m excited about what he’s going to bring to the table.”
What Smith brings is an extensive knowledge of Western Pennsylvania football. And if Franklin wants his “dominate the state” mantra for recruiting he’s going to need someone to clean up in the area that was once dominated by former Penn State assistant coach Tom Bradley.
Smith, Franklin’s defensive recruiting coordinator, starred at and coached at Gateway High School, one of the top teams in the most competitive league in the state, the WPIAL. From 2002 to 2012, Smith led Gateway to a 101-30 mark and four WPIAL runner-up finishes.
Smith said no official recruiting areas have been set yet, but he figures he’s heading west.
“We haven’t had that official meeting yet, but I would think it would make sense for me to go out there and at least cover most of it or part of it with my connections and network,” Smith said.
Smith knows that some of the best players in the Pittsburgh area are no longer choosing Penn State. Schools from all over the country are raiding the area for talent that used to be the Nittany Lions’ storehouse.
“We’ve lost some ground there,” Smith said. “There’s guys each year that are going to Big Ten and SEC schools. We want to go back to Western Pa. and get the guys that we want.”
Even though he has a little gray in his beard, Smith, 44, is not too far removed from knowing what a scholarship from Penn State can mean to a recruit.
Nicknamed Superfly, Smith was a 5-foot-9 dynamo who still ranks among the schools’ best with 108 career receptions. He played professionally in the NFL, Canadian Football League and Arena Football League.
Smith also is stepfather to former Nittany Lion standout Justin King, who helped turned the program around about a decade ago and went on to a five-year stint in the NFL.
Smith will now be coaching his stepson’s position — defensive backs.
He’s not worried that coaching the players he spent a career trying to beat will be a difficult adjustment.
“As a high school coach, you’ve got to coach everything,” Smith said. “I’ve coached guys like Justin King, Lydell Sargeant and Dayonne Nunley and Corey Brown, guys that went on to play major Division I football at the defensive back level. It’s coaching. It’s communicating. It’s assignment driven. It’s fundamental driven. That’s what I can do.”
The fact that Smith even is a football coach still surprises him.
“Back when I was a player, I never dreamed of coaching,” he said. “After I got done playing Canadian and Arena football, my dad suggested I go try high school coaching. I said, ‘What the heck. I’ll try it.’ Here, 17 or 18 years later, I’m back at Penn State. It’s all surreal.”
The fact that his professional and playing paths have converged on two special places is not lost on Smith.
“I have the rare opportunity that not only did I play high school at Gateway and coached at Gateway, played college ball at Penn State and now I get the opportunity to come back to my home and coach ball here,” he said.
Franklin does think it is important to embrace Penn State’s history. He is not bashful at bringing up Joe Paterno’s name, something that hasn’t been very politically correct over the past two years.
Franklin, a former East Stroudsburg quarterback, also appreciates what the past players have to offer the program.
“I think one of the things that makes this place so unique is the alumni, not only the alumni of the university but the alumni of the football program,” Franklin said. “It’s probably as unique as it is anywhere in the country. So we want to continue to build on that. I think the consistency that we had in this program for so long allowed there to be a connection for so many years and guys to feel comfortable.”
Franklin said he didn’t hire Smith solely based on those ties, but those connections are “important.”
Smith knows where he stands is important.
“Here at Penn State obviously we have got a lot of history,” he said. “I helped to represent that history. We’ve got a proud tradition and we want to take this thing and accelerate it, make it bigger and better.”
It means a lot to him that Franklin has not spurned the past.
“Over the course of history, Penn State football helped to build this university and the mystique of Penn State,” Smith said. “I played from 1987 to 1991 and those years are important to me. Those years molded and shaped my life. It’s important to the past alumni that they’re recognized and that they’re important. It matters.
“It’s great that he’s embraced it. I think we’re still in the process of healing completely and we’re looking to move forward.”
And Smith has great hopes for the prospects at a place he’s loved so much in the past.
“When I walked into the Lasch Building, I almost forgot how nice it is here,” Smith said. “It’s just a great place, I have a lot of fond memories here and hopefully we can create a lot of good memories in the future.”