Terry Smith hadn't intended to get into coaching. He had taken his shot at an NFL playing career, played a few seasons in the Canadian Football League and even tried arena football. By the mid-1990s, he figured he was done with the game.
He was wrong. After Smith's final season of pro football - with the Albany Firebirds of the Arena Football League - his father recommended that he try coaching. He got his start at Hempfield High near Lancaster, Pa., and it proved to be the start of a journey that would eventually circle back to the place where his football career really took off.
Earlier this month, James Franklin approached Smith about joining the coaching staff he was assembling at Penn State. Smith, who ranks 11th in Nittany Lion history with 1,825 receiving yards on 108 receptions from 1988-91, was thrilled to come back to his alma mater, calling the opportunity "surreal."
"I almost had forgotten how nice it is here," he said. "It's just a great place. I have a lot of fond memories here. Hopefully we can create a lot of good memories in the future."
The Nittany Lions are banking on that, and the coaches are confident that Smith can help them build a championship-caliber program as the assistant in charge of cornerbacks. His return to Penn State after a stellar playing career has been one of the big storylines of Franklin's brief tenure. When rumors began circulating last Sunday that Smith was set to join Franklin's staff, the former star wideout picked up more than 1,000 Twitter followers in two days.
"Most of them were alumni," he said. "They were all just happy and excited that there was a guy from the past who had success here [coming back]. They're hoping that we can do really good things. I'm going to contribute in every way possible, how ever Coach Franklin sees fit for me to fit in. It's a staff that's been together for three years [at Vanderbilt]. I have to fit into that staff. I can give them the Penn State perspective, and obviously Coach Franklin is going to put the exclamation point on it and have us do it his way."
Before returning to Penn State, Smith spent 11 seasons as head coach at Gateway High in his hometown of Monroeville, Pa., and one season coaching wide receivers at Temple.
The forces that would eventually bring him back to University Park began coming together years ago. Franklin used to recruit in western Pennsylvania and got to know Smith when the former Nittany Lion was coaching at Gateway. Franklin said he keeps a list of people who make a positive impression on him in case he has a job that needs filled or just wants to get to know them better. Smith, he said, made that list years ago.
"Some guys have a presence," Franklin said. "You walk in, and he has a presence. You see how the students interact with him. You see how the administration interacts with him, the pride, the respect they have for him. The guy is special. I knew that right away. I thought he was going to be a guy who had a chance to go to the next level and be successful."
After more than a decade at Gateway, Smith joined Matt Ruhl's staff at Temple last fall, working with the Owls' wide receivers. As it happened, Temple linebackers coach Mike Siravo was a friend of Franklin's defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt, Bob Shoop. Shoop and Siravo talked last fall, and during their conversation, Siravo praised Smith's professionalism. Earlier this month, Franklin brought Shoop along with him to Penn State, and Shoop began thinking about that conversation as Franklin and his assistants looked to round out their staff.
"It was important for us to get a Penn State person on the staff," Shoop said. "I mentioned to Coach, 'Remember Terry Smith. He's a guy with Pennsylvania ties and an outstanding recruiter. The guy's been a head coach, and he's coached numerous positions, so he has versatility.' Coach reached out to him, and Terry did a great job on the interview. He and I have spent a lot of time together, because he's making the transition from being a receiver guy to a corner guy, and I'm excited and looking forward to working with him."
The feeling is mutual. Smith said he doesn't anticipate any difficulties transitioning to defense, having coached two prominent Penn State defensive backs in Lydell Sargeant and Justin King. And if he ends up recruiting the WPIAL for Penn State - those assignments haven't been made official yet - it should be a perfect fit for the western Pennsylvania native.
In addition to his coaching and recruiting responsibilities, Smith sees himself serving as a link to the past. He used to come back to Penn State from time to time when King, who also happens to be his son, was playing for the Lions in the mid-2000s. And when Bill O'Brien sought out former lettermen to speak to players following the imposition of harsh NCAA sanctions in 2012, Smith was among those who answered the call, feeling as though he had a responsibility to support his alma mater.
"When I was a high school coach, I was a big teacher of history - where you come from and the school that you [represent]," he said. "Here at Penn State, we've obviously got a lot of history. I hope to represent that history. We've got a proud tradition, and we want to continue that, and then we want to take this thing and accelerate it, make it bigger and better."