BIG SANDY, Texas — When Lovie Smith's hometown wanted to name a street after him nearly a decade ago, even the biggest roads in this quiet town 100 miles east of Dallas would have been a modest honor.
But Smith chose the tiny road where he grew up, on the south edge of town. It might not show up on the map on your phone, but Lovie Smith Drive runs the length of maybe two football fields between West Old Waters Bluff Road and Lyles Street.
"Why would you want any other street?" Smith said about what formerly was Church Street, under a canopy of large trees with small churches on each end. "It's a great honor, no matter what street it was. There's nothing on my street now. Our house burned down many years ago, but I can remember every step. I walked every step, many, many a night."
Drive into Big Sandy, just 10 minutes north of Interstate 20, and you're greeted with a wood sign on the side of the road —"Home of Lovie Smith" — right next to a green sign bearing its population: 1,343.
"It goes without saying how proud I am to be from Big Sandy. Never want to get too far away from it," said Smith, 57. "I learned so much there, owe so many people there. So much support I've gotten there, all fond memories, and a lot of them are deeply rooted in football. When you're from a small town, you get to know everyone, intimately."
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Nearly 40 years after the Bucs coach graduated from high school — in a class of 34 students — it's not hard to find subtle reminders of Smith. The scoreboard in the end zone at Big Sandy High School has a single line: "Donated by Thurman Smith Family," a tribute to his father, who died in 1996.
"He would not let us put his name on there — he let us put the Smith family name, but not him alone," said Larry Minter, the Big Sandy High athletic director and head coach, as well as a former player for the Wildcats. "He's always done things back toward Big Sandy, always gave credit to that being how he made it, and made sure we were taken care of."
Smith never played in the NFL, a hamstring injury derailing his shot with the Atlanta Falcons after he played at Tulsa, but his Big Sandy teams remain the stuff of legend.
The Wildcats haven't won a state title in 40 years, but won three straight from 1973-75 with Smith as a hard-hitting linebacker. His senior year, the Wildcats scored 824 points — which stood as a national record for 19 years — and allowed a total of 15, getting shutouts in 11 of 14 games.
As Smith prepares to lead the Bucs today against the Cowboys at Raymond James Stadium, the game is a reminder of the NFL he grew up with. He cheered for a Dallas franchise that went to five Super Bowls in the 1970s, winning twice.
"Tom Landry is my all-time favorite football coach," said Smith, who faced Dallas four times as Bears' coach, winning twice in Arlington. "Roger Staubach's my all-time favorite football player, with Bob Hayes a close second. Cowboys football, and football in general in Big Sandy, it didn't get much better than that."
The Cowboys haven't won a Super Bowl in 20 years, but football is still king in Big Sandy, and on a Saturday afternoon in September, the day before Smith's Bucs played to the south in Houston, hundreds still pack the high school stadium to watch youth football games.
"One of the hardest hitters in Big Sandy. Linebacker on some great teams," says Quincy McCleveland, 51, after coaching his grandson in a flag football game. "He was quiet, but he was just a great hitter. He still gives back to the school, just a great gentleman, a family man, and I've been knowing the whole family forever."
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That Smith could still bring football pride to Big Sandy, 39 years after he left for college, helps balance a tragedy the town suffered in 1984. Smith wasn't the best player on Big Sandy's championship teams — that honor is generally given to David Overstreet, a running back who scored 56 touchdowns in one season, a state record for 25 years.
Overstreet played at Oklahoma and was a first-round pick of the Dolphins, but died in a car accident not far from Big Sandy at age 25.
High school football in Texas is strong enough that most small towns have a player that they brag about on Friday nights, and Big Sandy has Smith, who not only became a head coach in the NFL, but made it to the Super Bowl and still talks proudly about where he grew up.
Minter had heard stories of Smith as part of Big Sandy's championship teams when he played there 25 years ago. Now he sees his players admire Smith for different reasons, reminding them there is life beyond just playing football.
In his Bears days, Smith once sent Reebok shoes for all the athletic teams at Big Sandy — junior high and high school — not just football, but volleyball and track and the rest.
Minter said his kids can appreciate Smith's generosity, but he reminds them of the kind of player he was when he was no different than they are now, trying to make something of themselves in a small town.
"When practice ended, he was the guy that kept them out there and the players did their own thing," Minter said. "He rarely left the field unprepared and was always a leader in that, willing to do the extra work. Today, if you're willing to do the extra work, you can beat a lot of people.
"We still use him a lot to explain to our kids that the sky's the limit."
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.