The Smiths Station football team’s 7-0 start, which has put it one win from a region championship, came as a surprise to many outside the program.
It wasn’t that parents and fans didn’t know the team was good — after all, it was one play from making the playoffs as a 4-seed last year. It was just that they didn’t quite realize how good the Panthers could be.
How good is that?
With its 3-0 shutout last week of Class 6A No. 3 Opelika, the reigning state runners-up, Smiths Station jumped to No. 2 in the Alabama Sportswriters Association poll and moved a win over Carver-Montgomery (8 p.m. Friday at Panther Stadium) away from a region championship. There is still a significant gap between itself and No. 1 Hoover in the rankings, but there’s also a fairly significant gap between itself and No. 3 Bob Jones.
The team’s success may seem to have sprung out of nowhere this season, driven by some miraculous change in philosophy over the summer. In reality, coach Mark Rose said, it started six years ago when he took over the program and has built steadily from there.
A new coach, a new program
When Rose took over the Panthers head coaching job in 2008, he was trying to turn around a program that had made the postseason just once in its previous 10 seasons.
There were signs of improvement, like the team’s short-lived trip to the playoffs in 2006, but it wasn’t the elite level Rose envisioned.
“My motivation, from Day 1, was to end up in Tuscaloosa,” Rose said. “Everything we do is to win a state championship at Smiths Station.”
At first, that seemed like little more than a pipe dream. ‘Success’ at Smiths Station in the past had meant six wins and a playoff berth. Coincidentally, that’s what the team achieved in its first year under Rose. They made it seven wins in Year 3.
While moderately successful, those teams hadn’t grown up through Rose’s program, which was designed to start in seventh grade and produce athletes already groomed to positions and the expectations of the high school coaches.
The team has coaches from seventh grade and up who follow the same philosophy, who get players into the same weight training program and instill the same discipline.
“They coach them exactly like we want them to coach,” Rose said. “They’re hard-nosed. They’ve been in weight training every day since seventh grade. It’s just a consistent work ethic that obviously transitions to the field. When they get to us, it’s the same workout.”
And the coaches at each level have their own impressive pedigrees. Take Charles Flowers, for example, who coaches the Smiths Station freshman team. He is a state title-winning coach in two sports, baseball and football, from his days as Shaw’s varsity coach.
From seventh grade on, players have been put through the rigors in an intense weight training program and, on the field, have learned the team’s offensive and defensive philosophies.
“Just like we raise them from seventh grade, we believe in running the football and playing great defense,” Rose said. “It’s all about being physical players.”
Not coincidentally, this team’s seniors were in seventh grade when Rose took over, the first to make it through all six years of his program.
The results are undeniable.
“We’ve built a program,” said co-defensive coordinator Adam Johnson, who has been with the team since 2004, four seasons before rose took over. “You do it rep by rep. Whatever you’re doing, do it to get better. Are you stretching? Are you running? Whatever it is, do it to get better.”
A look down the depth chart at the beginning of the season made it clear that if there was one thing Smiths Station could rely on, it was experience.
Nine regulars on offense and six on defense were seniors, many of whom were three-year starters. They were guys who had grown up in Rose’s program and learned how to play in his system.
Take Levi White, for example. At tight end, he is only 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, often blocking players more than 100 pounds heavier than him. He has had tremendous success, however, despite the lack of size.
“It’s technique and fight,” Johnson said. “The will to do whatever you’ve got to do. That kid may have 100 pounds on me, but I’ve got to do whatever I can to beat him.”
White said it was just a matter of the amount of work players had given to the program.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” he said. “Every day. Go in there and listen to coaches. It doesn’t matter how big you are.”
Cornerback Tre Harris, who is also a senior who started with Rose in seventh grade, said a lot of the team’s success was a matter of chemistry, bonds formed over years of playing together.
“The people I’ve been with since seventh grade are the same people I’m playing with now,” he said. “We work as a team. We’re not selfish on the field. You just have to have that chemistry.”
After both of Smiths Station’s big wins this year—against Auburn and Opelika—Rose used the word ‘loyal’ to describe his coaches and players, saying the success this year wouldn’t have been possible without them being willing to battle through the difficult times.
“So many people get negative or whatever, because there’s not a quick fix to going to the playoffs one time in 10 years,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
He stressed how hard it is to keep working when you’re 5-5 and on the outside of the playoff picture, looking in.
“It just speaks to the relationship of players and coaches, sticking together through good times and bad,” he said. “I told them their loyalty would be rewarded. I’ve seen it happen so many times at other places. It’s the same recipe — just work hard.”
The team hasn’t reached its main goals yet. White said the team wanted to go 10-0 and then focus on the playoffs. Rose wants a state championship. It will be difficult to do either without a win over Carver-Montgomery on Friday.
They both know it’s going to take continued success in the program Rose has established.
“This is the same practice we’ve been doing every Tuesday all year and for the past six years,” Rose said on Tuesday. “I know the formula works. We just have to stick with it.”