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Homer Smith, former Army coach, dies at 79

Former Army head coach Homer Smith, regarded as one of keenest offensive minds in the annals of college football, has died. He was 79.

Smith, coach of the Black Knights from 1974-78, died Sunday at his home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., after a four-year battle with cancer.

Smith was an assistant at several schools in his 39-year career, never staying long enough at any one place to put down roots. He coached at Stanford, Air Force, Alabama, Arizona, the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, and served three stints as offensive coordinator at UCLA.

While with the Bruins, Smith developed seven future NFL quarterbacks, including Tommy Maddox, Jay Schroeder, and current UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel. Smith also was head coach at Davidson and Pacific.

Former UCLA head coach Terry Donahue once called Smith the best teacher of the game he had ever known.

"There are two men in my life who've made a real difference when it comes to football — Terry Donahue and Homer Smith are the reason I'm standing here ... right now," said Neuheisel, who played for the Bruins from 1979-83, during Smith's second stint as coordinator. "I miss Homer already."

Smith had an economics degree from Princeton, an MBA from Stanford and a master's in theological studies from Harvard. But it was the ebb and flow of offensive football that captivated him most.

Born on Oct. 9, 1931, Smith grew up in Omaha, Neb., and played fullback at Princeton, earning All-Ivy League honors. He rushed for 273 yards in a game against Harvard in 1952, before graduating two years later.

Smith began coaching in 1958 at Stanford. He spent four years at Air Force, and another seven at smaller schools — five at Davidson and two at Pacific — before joining Pepper Rodgers' UCLA staff in 1972.

It was there that Smith perfected the wishbone offense. In fact, UCLA set school records for total yards (470.6 per game) and rushing yards (400.3 per game) in 1973.

Smith took over at Army during the most difficult period in school history. Army was coming off an 0-10 season in 1973 and the Vietnam War was nearing an end. He made progress, compiling a 21-33-1 record before he was fired after a 28-0 loss to Navy.

Still, Smith's offenses excelled. When opposing defenses loaded the line of scrimmage to stop the ground-gobbling wishbone attack, the Black Knights unveiled their "Bomb Squad." Quarterback Leamon Hall, who later married Smith's daughter, Kim, set several academy passing records, and still holds the school record of 38 career touchdown passes.

Smith was a father figure as much as a coach.

"He touched so many lives," Hall told the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, N.Y. "I've been getting emails from generals and captains of industry who credit Homer for their success. Homer was a big influence on them hanging in there at West Point."

While at Alabama, the highlight of Smith's time there came in 1989 against Mississippi. Trailing by 21 points, the Crimson Tide scored 62 unanswered points.

Recalling that game in a tribute column, Tuscaloosa News sports writer Cecil Hurt said he asked Smith afterward what he was thinking during the comeback.

Smith responded with two words, in Latin: "Deo Gratis." (Thanks be to God.)

Smith spent his final two years as a coach at Arizona before retiring in 1997. He is survived by his wife, Kathy; two daughters, Cari Carpenter and Kim Hall; and four grandchildren. UCLA will hold a memorial service on campus June 12.