Scripts don’t suit Aaron Smith – even when he tries to, well, script them. Few could have foreseen that Smith would become a Steelers great after Pittsburgh selected him in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL Draft out of Northern Colorado, then a Division II school.
All Smith did in 13 seasons with the Steelers was help them win two Super Bowls, establish himself as a prototype for a 3-4 defensive end and mentor players like Brett Keisel and Cam Heyward.
Playing a position that offers much more grunt than glamour, Smith made only one Pro Bowl during his career (though his 44 sacks still rank ninth in Steelers history). But he is one of the most underrated players of his generation, something no less an authority than Dick LeBeau would affirm.
The former Steelers defensive coordinator said Smith was “unblockable,” and a linchpin of the 2008 unit that was the driving force behind Pittsburgh’s last Super Bowl Championship.
“He is one of the best football players I have ever coached,” said LeBeau, who coached 45 seasons in the NFL.
After retiring in 2012, Smith trimmed down from his playing weight of around 300 pounds and eventually found his way to coaching. Smith, who assisted with the football and boys’ basketball programs at North Allegheny High School, only intended to dabble in coaching.
That changed last spring when he became the head boys’ basketball coach at Eden Christian Academy, a small private school in the Pittsburgh area. Smith has led Eden Christian to a 17-6 record and when I caught up with him last week, he was reviewing game tape of an upcoming opponent.
We talked about a number of subjects, including his current job, the 2008 season, and what he thinks of another Joey Porter playing for the Steelers.
How did you become head coach at Eden Christian?
Basketball was my first love growing up. When I was playing football, the Steelers head trainer, John Norwig, said, “What are you going to do when you retire?” I said, “I’m going to play basketball. I love the game. I’m going to play as much as I can.” I retired and I kind of didn’t know what to do.
A buddy of mine at Eden Christian Academy said, ‘I know you like basketball. Are you interested helping coach?” I thought, “I’ll just jump in for something to do. Just hang out and teach a kid a drop step.” I did it that year and the next year and then the next year and I was there four years as an assistant.
Another friend got the head job at North Allegheny and asked if I’d coach. I said, “I’ll be an assistant, I don’t mind helping out.” The next thing I know I’m the first assistant on the staff. I’m there for four years. He leaves and the next guy comes in and says, “Will you coach with me?” I’m coaching the JV team and am the first assistant, doing strength and conditioning.
Last year I was like, “I’m not going to coach.” I just coached my little guy and his fifth-grade team. I loved that and it was fun. My buddy was still the head coach at Eden and he took the head of the school (job). He said, “Would you be interested in the head job?” I said I would never take a head job just because I see what they go through and deal with. But it’s a small 2-A Christian school and I’m like how much can the craziness be?
I took the job and I enjoy the basketball aspect of it, being in the gym with the kids. That part is fun. If I could double me and find some other guy to deal with the other stuff and just coach basketball, it would be great.
What is your “playing” weight these days?
I’m about 255, 260 (pounds). At one point I was down to 215. I wasn’t lifting; I was doing a bunch of running and calisthenics. But I looked too skinny. Even Coach LeBeau thought I looked too skinny. He said, “Get some weight on you.”
I talked to Brett Keisel recently and he said you two once gave new meaning to the term one-and-done. What do you remember from a certain pick-up basketball game, one in which you and Keisel thought you would be on the same team, instead of opposing ones?
They always put the two big guys on opposite teams and then it’s who’s going to guard Keisel? Who’s going to guard Aaron? You wind up guarding each other. At first it starts out casual, right? We’re ultra-competitive guys and we both knew not to say anything to each other because as soon as you say that word it’s going to escalate. But one makes a play and now your pride kicks in, so you go down and make a play. And then his pride kicks in and the next thing you know, you’re going full go against each other because you’re refusing to let the other one get the better of you.
One time and we swore, “Nah, we ain’t ever doing this again.” There’s blood on the shirts. He’s complaining about this and I’m complaining about my nose and his chin. We walked out fine, but we swore we’d never play each other again.
The 2008 defense was as unique as it was dominant because of how well everyone meshed on and off the field. What were the personalities on that defense?
Potsy was the voice in command of the whole team, a calm, cool, collected guy. Never got too high, never got too low. Always was on top of what was going on. He was just a smooth guy. Hamp was kind of a jokester, that guy who is a fun-loving kid that everybody enjoyed. Foote was the mouth. Troy was the quiet, confidence guy. He is by far one of the most kind, loving person you will ever meet. Those DBs were like a pack of little chihuahuas trying to bite your ankles all the time but they didn’t back down from anybody. Deebo was like the stick you hit ‘em over the head with, that guy like, “We always have Deebo. Doesn’t matter what you’ve got, we’ve always got a Deebo. What do you have?’”
When I look at that group, it was a bunch of kids that just liked each other and loved playing. As I coach now I say, “Listen guys, I played on some good teams. But this team, the 2008 team, it had that mentality that we didn’t care who it was or where it was. If we were together, we could beat anybody.” As a group, we weren’t in fear of anybody. We had the belief in each other that we could get it done as a group. There were teams that individually had players better but collectively I don’t think you would have found a group more willing to fight for each other than that group.
How closely do you follow the Steelers?
I live here so I see stuff and I hear stuff but I’m not checking up on who’s starting, who’s doing this, what’s going on. What’s funny is I don’t watch football. I know Troy doesn’t watch football. All of the guys would watch all of the college games and I didn’t watch the college games even when I was playing. I love football but I just didn’t want to do it all the time.
That said, is seeing Cam Heyward continue to dominate a source of pride since you were a mentor to him?
When you pour into somebody and they’re good people and have success, it makes you happy for them. He’s a great player and I knew he was going to be a great player when he came (to Pittsburgh). You could tell, just the way he worked, his competitiveness, his strength and how he trained every day, how he was a student of the game. Sometimes you get rookies, you tell them something and they don’t want to hear it. This guy actually wanted to learn. Then you find out how good of a person he is, and it makes it even more worthwhile and more exciting when he has the success that he has.”
Does it make you feel older when Joey Porter’s son, Joey Jr., is going to be in the NFL next season?
It makes you feel old when you coached the kid in high school. I coached football a little bit at North Allegheny too and was on the staff when he played. That kind of makes you feel a little bit older. I’m happy for him and I’m happy for the family. They’re great people.
Would you like to see Joey in the black and gold?
I would out of selfish desire. I would tell him hopefully he does not. My professional opinion is his best chance for success is go somewhere else, be yourself, not your dad’s son. You want to get drafted to your home city but you really don’t because you’ve got how many people pulling on you and tugging on you and asking for this. He’s a great player and is his own man but if he’s here he’s always going to get compared to his dad.
Your son, Elijah, was diagnosed with leukemia during the 2008 season but made a full recovery. How is he doing?
He’s good. He’s bigger than me now. Last season was his first year at IUP and he redshirted as a freshman, playing right tackle. He’s doing well, loves it up there. It’s funny because he came home for Christmas and we were in the kitchen and I’m like, “Man, I never thought I would be a smaller man in my own kitchen.” He’s bigger than me in every aspect. We have been blessed.