Time is running out for Clifton Smith. His college football career - marked by injuries, missed training camps, questions about his heart, classroom struggles, a minor brush with the law, vast potential and great expectations (always that) - is winding to a close, and Smith has achieved none of the greatness that was predicted for him.
These days Smith, the University of Utah's enigmatic running back, is finishing his football career quietly on the bench. A fifth-year senior, he's a fourth-string halfback on a 2-3 team, behind three underclassmen. All of which is a strange place to wind up for a player whose picture appears on the cover of the team brochure and on home-game tickets.Smith, the team's leading rusher a year ago, played two plays against Minnesota. He played no plays against Fresno State, then 15 against Hawaii. He didn't play a down against Wyoming, partly because of an infection. With the season nearly half finished, Smith has carried the ball just eight times for 33 yards and one touchdown.
It's not as if the Utes couldn't use him. They rank dead last in the Western Athletic Conference in rushing offense (103rd nationally), averaging 74 yards per game.
"There are three running backs ahead of him," said offensive coordinator Dan Henson earlier this season. "We play the people who practice hard. He's just not producing like the others. You've got to play the guys who practice well."
If Utah's coaches are playing hard ball with Smith, some would say it's about time, or too late. Smith has long been accused of not practicing hard, if at all, but during the Jim Fassel years coaches tended to overlook his shortcomings. Smith missed most of the 1989 training camp while finishing summer school and finally reported to practice out of shape and overweight. Yet when the season began, Ute coaches, after considerable debate among themselves, put him on the field. It caused resentment among teammates who had been practicing every day, and divided the coaching staff.
When Smith missed most of training camp this summer, again to finish summer school, and again reported out of shape and overweight, the new Ute coaches weren't so forgiving. They placed him at the bottom of the depth chart. They already had bent over backward for him anyway. During the summer, Fred Graves, Utah's running back coach, put Smith through a rigorous training routine, readying him for the season. Smith's day began with a 6 a.m., two-hour weight-lifting session, and finished with a two-hour workout in the evening. Eventually he balked and quit the team. Ute coaches called his uncle, Wardell Smith, to fly in from San Francisco to discuss the matter with his nephew. Smith changed his mind and returned to the team.
"I was not sure I wanted to play again," says Smith. "They rode me pretty hard. I got tired of it."
But Smith says the workouts aren't what caused him to quit. During the summer, coaches told Smith to leave his apartment and move back into the dorms, and to give up his car. "They felt they could monitor my progress better," says Smith. "I didn't like it. Plus, I decided maybe this isn't worth it. (Quitting) wasn't what I really wanted to do, though. Football is important to me."
But some wonder.
"Everything has been potential from day one," says Wayne McQuivey, Utah's (and Smith's) running back coach the past few years who is now coaching at Southern Utah State. "I couldn't get it out of him. He just doesn't work hard. It was a very big frustration for me. He's a kid you look at and see great talent. He could be a first-round (NFL) draft choice. God has given him such great talent, but he won't develop it."
"The problem is he's been given everything," says Graves. "He doesn't know how to work hard."
The one thing no one questions is that Smith has been given talent. He's 6-foot-2, and a natural 220 pounds, with 4.5 speed and strength enough to bench press 350 pounds and squat 515. "He can dunk a basketball with the best of them," says Graves.
Says McQuivey, "He runs like a deer. He has the body of a Greek god. He can change direction, he can leap, he's explosive, he has power. He has greater potential than Scott Mitchell (the former Ute quarterback now with the Miami Dolphins). He has all that talent and that body, but he won't work at it. If only he could look ahead and see the future."
It once looked so bright. As a senior at South San Francisco High School, Smith was recruited by universities in three different sports. In football, he rushed for 1,400 yards. In basketball he scored 17 points a game. In baseball he batted over .400. "I can play anywhere on the field," says Smith now. Which might be one reason the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him out of high school. Smith chose instead to play college football to honor his late father's wishes. Clifton Sr., who died of a heart attack when his son was 17, always wanted him to seek a college education. Smith, resisting offers from most Pac 10 schools, went to Utah, where Fassel was setting up one of the nation's most explosive offenses.
Following a redshirt year, Smith had a fine freshman season. He returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and rushed for 424 yards on just 90 carries. He also was arrested. He and a group of friends spray-painted the BYU campus days before the Utah-BYU football game. Smith played in the game anyway and scored a touchdown. Privately, coaches were raving about Smith's potential - the word that has stalked him these five years.
His sophomore season all but ended in the first game with a knee injury, but he rebounded last season. Smith gained 1,175 all-purpose yards, catching 44 passes and rushing for 681 yards. It was his best season, but in other ways it was his worst.
"There were certain things that happened with the team that I didn't understand," says Smith. "And some of my friends (teammates Erroll Martin and Cedric Riles) were caught in a drug bust. They got involved in drugs; I didn't. I didn't have anyone to hang out with. I was a loner. And I was frustrated with football."
So were his coaches and teammates. To punish Smith for missing training camp, his coaches pulled him from the starting lineup for the first few games, but it was only a gesture. Smith still was given a starter's playing time. Steve Abrams started, but soon Smith would replace him and play the rest of the game.
"Some of the guys on the team really didn't like that," says Smith.
Neither did some of the coaches.
It wasn't just missing training camp that bothered McQuivey and other coaches. They thought Smith loafed in practice. "He just goes through the motions and does the bare minimum," says McQuivey. "It was just like his classwork. He's not dumb. He can do the work. He just won't. He always had to go to summer quarter to stay eligible."
The breaking point for McQuivey was the Nebraska game (a competitive 42-30 loss). He believes Smith gave up in the second half. "I was so upset, I gave up," said McQuivey. "I told Jim (Fassel) I wasn't going to coach him again. I got into it with Jim. I didn't want (Smith) on the field. I thought he should be sat down for a week or two."
McQuivey says he argued with Fassel and then-offensive coordinator Jack Riley about benching Smith, but Riley wouldn't have it. He wanted the best players on the field. Says McQuivey, "At the end of the season, Riley told me, `You were right about Cliff."
Says Smith, "I knew what was going on. Coach Riley thought we should go with the guy who can help us. I wanted to play, so I wasn't going to argue with him. What could I do?" In the meantime, McQuivey says he tried everything to motivate Smith. "I chastised him, threatened him, ran him, gave him extra conditioning. I even tried reverse psychology. The most success I had with him was when I gave up and ignored him."
McQuivey admits, "I am not on good terms with Cliff." Still, he says, "He's a good kid. When you talk to him, you can't help but like him. He communicates well. He's bright. But he's just plain lazy. He's a kid who for some reason never realized what his potential is. He could be the greatest football player Utah ever had, but time is running out."
Says Graves, "You've got to understand, he's never been a bad kid. He's just been given things."
Smith - open, friendly, expansive - looks back with no bitterness. "I didn't get along with the last (coaching) staff, but I'm not going to say it's their fault," he says. "You have to look at yourself."
And so he has, and having examined himself, Smith is not sure what he has found. "Maybe they see something in me that I don't," he says. "Sometimes when I'm working out, I feel like I'm working hard. Others see things and say I could work harder. It's confusing. I wonder how they see it, and I don't. Sometimes I have a tendency to get lazy, but not deliberately. I used to look at everyone to see how they practice, and I thought I put forth as much effort as they did."
As for all the talk of his potential, Smith has heard it before. "It gets monotonous," he says. "After a while you learn to live with it."
Smith seems strangely resigned and barely bothered by the prospect of riding out his senior season on the bench. One minute he says he loves the game, the next he's saying, "The older I get the more I realize that there are other things besides football."
One of those things is school. Smith, an aspiring probation officer, needs 38 credit hours to finish a degree in sociology. "My father always talked about me being the first in my family to get a degree," he says.
But Smith can't help dreaming. "Sometimes when I watch pro sports on TV, I'll see someone do something and I'll think I could do that. I just know I could. But it's the price you have to pay to do it."