Loyalty is a big deal for Steve Smith. When he was released by the Carolina Panthers earlier this month, he bought a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer to tell fans that he would "always consider myself a Carolina Panther."
He’ll always consider himself a Ute, too.
Smith transferred to the U. after two years at Santa Monica College, and it was at the U. that he met his wife, Angie, and blossomed into an all-Mountain West kick returner and NFL prospect. He was drafted by Carolina in 2001 and wore the Panther blue and black until earlier this month when he was released and snatched up by the Baltimore Ravens in a three-year, $11.5 million deal.
Smith said by phone Thursday that he was struck a few years after graduating from Utah in 2001 by the value of leaving a legacy at his alma mater.
"What can you do for a place that has given you so many things?" said Smith, a five-time Pro Bowler who ranks No. 19 all-time in NFL receiving yards and could crack the top 10 with a few more seasons like his last.
So in 2008, he and Angie donated $250,000 to endow a scholarship for a wide receiver at the U., money that has gone to support players like David Reed, Shaky Smithson and now Dres Anderson. Smith said he has a plaque in his North Carolina house that bears the name of scholarship recipients, and when he saw recently at the Ravens facility that Reed had a 103-yard kickoff return for Baltimore in 2010, it was "very cool to me."
"I understand that [a scholarship] comes from somebody, and so looking back as I move forward in my professional career and also as a father and a husband, I wanted to give many more people that opportunity to receive the same benefits that I received from someone else."
Smith and his wife visited Utah at the end of February, meeting up with former coach Ron McBride for lunch. Angie is pregnant with their fourth child and had a hankering for the Soup Kitchen in Sugar House (Hires Big H is the Smiths’ other Salt Lake favorite). So McBride met him there with a hug.
"He said he’s so proud of me," Smith said. "‘Look at all the people you’ve proven wrong.’ ... That’s who he is. At the end of the day, he’s a guy who gives kids an opportunity to [improve] their futures."
Smith said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, a defensive coordinator when Smith was at the U., has built off the foundation created by McBride then Urban Meyer. The sky’s the limit for Utah in the Pac-12, he believes, adding "I believe that coach Whittingham has made all the old Ute football players proud of their school."
Smith also watched the Runnin’ Utes beat Arizona State in his first-ever game at the Huntsman Center — yes, even counting his years as a student. He’s impressed with what Larry Krystkowiak has accomplished after so many players left when Jim Boylen was fired, and he also hopes someday soon to make a day trip to Athens, Ga., for a Red Rocks road meet against their rivals.
Smith will be back in Utah on Friday night to speak at the U.’s annual coaches’ clinic, from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Spence & Cleone Eccles Football Center. Also speaking will be McBride, Oakland Raiders offensive guard Tony Bergstrom, former Detroit Lion defensive lineman Luther Elliss and former college and NFL coach John Pease. Registration costs $35 and can be done online at www.utahfootballcamp.com or on site the day of the clinic at 4 p.m.
There’s only one level Smith said he’s likely to coach at, and he already has the job. After Friday’s clinic, Smith will leave on a red-eye flight to coach his son’s 9 a.m. flag football game Saturday. Gotta be there in time for warmups, he said.
"I can’t miss it."
Note: Any discussion of Smith’s release by the Panthers and signing by the Ravens was deemed off-limits as a condition for the interview.
— Matthew Piper
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