SALT LAKE CITY — It was his brother's son, a nice young man who deserved good things to happen. So why was Weber State coach John L. Smith troubled when his nephew was picked No. 1 in the NFL draft?
Seven years later, that can be easily answered: Too much, too fast.
With San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith set for today's NFC championship game, he has unexpectedly become a star. Cool but lethal, he's the Bay Area's newest crime-fighting icon. Go ahead, make his day.
All season, the ex-Ute has been defying the critics. He's not the league's best, but he has guided the Niners to their first conference title game in 14 years. He scored four touchdowns, including the game-winner, last week against New Orleans. That sets them up in today's game against New York. The Niners are back in the Super Bowl discussion for the first time since Steve Young was southpawing his way downfield.
Smith has spent the last six years labeled as someone's draft day brain cramp. Which brings the conversation back to Weber State's football coach, who is a brother to Alex Smith's father.
"Early on I was telling his dad, as well as Alex, 'I'm hoping you're not the first guy taken in the draft,'" the Wildcat coach said this week. "You just get thrown into the fire before you're ready."
That doesn't mean he was down on his nephew's potential. He knew there was NFL talent in the family. "Oh, yeah, I felt for sure he was going to blossom," the elder Smith said. "But I was very leery. I was saying, 'I hope you're not the number one guy.' I told his dad the best thing would be for Alex to not be the guy who's taken first."
Darned if it didn't happen anyway, and doggone if John L. wasn't right. In one sense, having a large financial commitment may have kept Alex from being cut. At the same time, few No. 1 quarterbacks not named Manning are NFL-ready. It's better to develop like Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, who was drafted No. 24 and sat behind Brett Favre before becoming the lead.
Smith, the coach, is as good an adviser as a young quarterback could want. He headed up programs at Idaho, Utah State, Louisville and Michigan State. Last month he was hired to replace the retiring Ron McBride at Weber State.
He's coached more games than his nephew has watched.
The coach admits he isn't an everyday mentor for Alex, just a fond uncle who lives in a different town. They actually spent more time together when Alex was growing up. He recalls Alex was "a clubfooted little kid trying to catch up with everybody. As he was growing up I was always saying, 'I wonder if Alex will ever grow into those feet.' All of a sudden he's the best athlete of the family. He did grow into them."
The bulk of John L.'s advice came when Alex was choosing an agent and awaiting the draft; later he could only deliver encouragement. The younger Smith endured a half dozen years of awful 49ers football, a host of coaching and system changes and a major shoulder injury. The reviews were as brutal the 49ers' record.
Notwithstanding, he has been gracious in his vindication season.
"Might be time to give Alex a little credit, huh?" Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said last week.
No doubt about it.
Still, Smith the quarterback had nothing snarky to say when asked what it means to finally have a great season. "We're still playing. That's what it means," he said in the post-game press conference. "It feels great."
His uncle says that as a college coach he has seldom had time to watch his nephew play entire games. But he did tune in to see some of last week's heart-stopper with the Saints.
"I got to see the last five minutes," Smith said.
That's what uncles are supposed to do, isn't it?
They don't have to be there for everything. But it's always nice to have them watching when the big stuff happens.
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