BY DARREN REESE
SUN SPORTS EDITOR
When East Tennessee State University returns to the football field in 2015 and the program's old record books are dusted off, the name Mike Smith will turn up several times.
Many today recognize him as the head coach of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. But more than three decades ago, Smith made a name for himself as a defensive standout in the Blue and Gold.
Smith was recently in town to play in the 2013 Niswonger Children's Hospital Benefit Golf Classic at The Virginian, and couldn't hide his excitement when asked about the return of football to his alma mater in Johnson City.
"It's very exciting for me being a former player and alum of ETSU," said Smith, who attended ETSU from 1978-81. "I've talked to a lot of former players who are also excited."
"Dr. (Brian) Nolan put it on the fast track when he became president of the university, and Dr. (Richard) Sander (athletic director) and coach (Phillip) Fulmer have done a great job with the process. Everyone is excited."
Smith tallied an ETSU record 186 tackles his senior season, and had 120 the year before that. He played middle linebacker.
He missed the 1979 season due to injury, but said one of his favorite memories of his college football career came that season when the 'Bucs shutout nationally-ranked Chattanooga 35-0 on homecoming.
Smith has remained close to many of the teammates he played with at ETSU, and like most, he was extremely disappointed when the school shut down the football program following the 2003 season citing financial reasons.
"The friendships I built during college, some of those have been for a lifetime," Smith said. "I learned a lot of lessons at ETSU, both good and bad. I made a lot of good friends. There are just so many good memories I have from my time there."
Smith - a Daytona Beach native - started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at San Diego State in 1982. He returned to the Volunteer State in 1987 to coach the defensive line at Tennessee tech. He stayed in Cookeville for 11 years, eventually working his way up to the defensive coordinator's position.
In 1999, the NFL came calling and Smith joined the coaching staff for the Baltimore Ravens. He later became the defensive coordinator at Jacksonville (2003-07) and was named the head coach of the Falcons in 2008.
He led Atlanta to an 11-5 record in his first season at the helm and was named the AP Coach of the Year. The Falcons are 56-24 in his five-year tenure, and made an appearance in the NFC Championship Game last year.
Over the course of Smith's coaching career, he made acquaintances with Carl Torbush, who was recently named the head coach in charge of reviving the ETSU program.
Unlike Smith, who worked his way up to the NFL, Torbush decided to stay in the college game his entire coaching career.
Torbush had head-coaching stints at Louisiana Tech and North Carolina, and was defensive coordinator at such schools as Alabama and Texas A&M.
Smith is excited about the hiring of Torbush.
"I knew him from visiting with him as a college coach, and I think he will do great," Smith said. "He has a lot of ties to the East Tennessee region. He knows the area very well."
"It's going to be fun to watch him and the staff that he assembles restart the program."