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By Quarterback coach Carl Smith works with rookie Russell Wilson during minicamp May 11, 2012. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
BY MASON KELLEY Special to The Californian
Carl Smith first met Pete Carroll in 1982. The coaches were hired at North Carolina State. Smith was the offensive coordinator. Carroll handled the defense.
They put together a team that finished with a winning record, but they didn't get a second season. They were fired after that first campaign. But the friendship that season sparked has lasted throughout their coaching careers.
"When he needs help, he gives me a call," Smith said.
The coaches linked up in New England in the late '90s. They won a national title at USC in 2004. And they have spent the past two years working together in Seattle. This time around, Carroll is the Seahawks' head coach. Smith works with the quarterbacks.
"He's saved me a few times when I've been out there in the wind," Smith said.
The Wasco native, who played football at Bakersfield College, has worked with a Heisman Trophy winner (Matt Leinart) and Pro Bowler (Drew Bledsoe), finding success from the USFL to the NFL.
But, as he stood in the Seahawks' training facility after a recent practice, the longtime assistant said working with rookie quarterback Russell Wilson during this season's run to the playoffs has been the most rewarding.
"This is the best one, because it's this year," he said with a laugh. "I can't remember all the rest of them. It's been spectacular."
Seattle travels to Atlanta this week to play the Falcons in the Divisional Round of the NFC playoffs. Smith is looking forward to seeing more of Wilson’s first-year “magic.”
“I’ve certainly never had a rookie quarterback perform anything like this,” Smith said.
For the first time in his NFL career, Smith entered the season with three quarterbacks vying for a starting spot in an open competition. Wilson, a third-round pick, went head-to-head with high-priced free agent Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson, who was the starter in 2011.
“That was fun for all of us,” the 64-year-old said.
Wilson showed something throughout the Seahawks’ preseason games that caused Carroll to take a chance. He showed enough magic to make the coaching staff ask, “what if?”
Seattle took a chance on Wilson and watched as he put together a passer rating of 100.
“He’s been terrific to work with,” Smith said.
When asked to name a player Smith could compare Wilson to, the coach mentioned Sam Mills. Smith met the former NFL linebacker while working for the Philadelphia Stars in the USFL and was an assistant with New Orleans when Mills played for the Saints.
Like the 5-foot-9 Mills, Wilson is considered undersized for a quarterback at 5-11. And, like Mills, Wilson refused to let that keep him from finding success in the NFL.
Smith still remembers finding Mills in a film room by himself.
“What are you doing, Sam?” he asked.
“Man, these linebackers are good,” Mills replied. “They’re trying to beat me to the ball.”
Mills wanted to find an edge. So does Wilson.
“He was just spectacular, a team player,” Smith said. “Always did the right thing, said the right thing. Russell is very much like Sam.”
Smith’s coaching career has taken him all across the country, but he tries to return to Kern County once a year.
“I still talk to people from Wasco and Bakersfield, but I don’t get back much,” he said.
While he doesn’t get many opportunities to return home, he credits his time at Bakersfield College, playing for mentors like Gerry Collis, Carl Bowser, Harvel Pollard, Duane Damron and Walt Johnson, for pointing him toward a long, and successful, career as a coach.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to coach football, when I played for those guys, because they were special and making a living doing that,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘OK, that’s what I want to do.’”
That decision, and the career that followed, has led him to Seattle. It has given him the chance to coach a rookie quarterback who is the talk of the NFL, while working for a team that is one win away from the NFC championship game.