Jamel Smith’s sound is distinct.
It’s about 10 minutes before kickoff and you can hear his pregame speech from well outside of the visiting locker room. His voice booms with the thunder you would expect of a 250-pound former All-American linebacker. It rises when he gets fired up like this — a rolling crescendo of intensity.
He’s talking lions, the pride and how everyone hunts together. He likens it to football, the defense and the mentality he urges his players to embrace tonight. The locker room erupts as their coach bellows at the front of the room.
“When he talks, everyone pays attention,” Wando senior Will Pickren said. “He gets that look in his eyes. You’re just ready to go to war with him.”
Scott McInnes saw the same thing in Smith when they first met. He was locked in. They talked some football and by the end of the interview McInnes was ready to strap up the pads. That’s significant, too, because even McInnes will tell you he’s much more of a basketball guy.
“He’s someone you want to play for,” McInnes said. “His energy and enthusiasm stand out immediately. Every kid that lives in the 29464 is going to be excited about playing for this guy.”
Smith has been hired as head football coach of Lucy Beckham, Mount Pleasant’s new $100 million high school set to open in August.
He’s spent the past eight years as an assistant on the staff of neighboring Wando High, the past four as the Warriors’ defensive coordinator.
“It just felt right,” Smith said. “Wando has done so much for me. It’s really hard to leave. But this opportunity felt right from the start.”
Smith is the first hire for McInnes, who was named athletic director at Lucy Beckham just last week. It'll likely be one of the most noteworthy too as the opening attracted interest from around the state and beyond. Smith is well credentialed. He starred at Virginia Tech during the Hokies' most successful stretch in program history. He played three years in NFL Europe before beginning a coaching career that included stops at Virginia Tech, Coastal Carolina, Spring Valley High and Wilson Hall before Wando, the largest high school in South Carolina.
McInnes liked his enthusiasm immediately. He wanted someone with good energy that could jumpstart the program. But that wasn't what sold him.
"I could tell he had a great heart," McInnes said. "You can be tough and disciplined but it has to be a good mix. You have to have that range. That can be tough. But he does. He has a big heart and loves his players. That was important."
Bud Foster uses Smith’s highlights as instructional material.
Foster wrapped up a 24-year run as defensive coordinator at Virginia Tech this fall. He’s widely regarded as one of the top defensive minds in college football. He says Smith was one of the best leaders that he coached, one that “always took care of business.” So he'd turn on Smith’s tape when he wanted to show younger players what that's supposed to look like.
Smith, 42, was a three-year starter at Virginia Tech. He led the Hokies in tackles as a junior, and again as a senior on the team’s run to the 1999 national championship. He was an AP All-American that year and a semifinalist for the Dick Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s top linebacker. He epitomized the hard-working, lunch pail mentality that Foster coined.
“One of my all-time favorite players,” Foster said this week. “He has a tremendous football IQ. He’s a guy that really studied the game. He knew every part of our defense. He held himself to a high standard and he held his teammates to a high standard. That’s why we had success while he was here.”
Rather than lunch pail, Smith describes the culture of the defenses he coaches as blue-collar. It carries the same connotation. He reiterates it several times over as he explains it as if to drive home its importance.
Smith has an aggressive, hard-nosed coaching style. He’s loud on the sidelines, and demanding. It would seem to be an uncomfortable fit in the affluent Mount Pleasant beach community. But in a way, maybe he fills what some kids in the area might be lacking.
“Kids don’t really get that hard-nosed toughness anymore. So I think you can appreciate it more,” said Pickren, a team captain, an all-state safety and North-South all-star under Smith at Wando this fall. “He’s hard on his players but he loves them up too. It’s both ways. He likes to laugh and joke around too. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”
Smith’s impact at Wando has been undeniable. The Warriors defense allowed 10 points per game fewer than the previous season in his first year as defensive coordinator. Wando held six opponents to 17 points or fewer in his second season, surrendering the fewest points per game of any Warriors defense since 2012. In region play this season, Wando held three of its five opponents to seven points or less.
“It’s been really fun to watch him develop as a coach,” Wando athletic director Bob Hayes said. Hayes spent nine years as head coach at Wando and still serves as an assistant. “He really connects with the kids. They play hard for him. He’s a players’ coach in a lot of ways. Head coaching is just a natural progression for a coach like him.”
Smith didn’t apply for the head coach opening at Wando. The timing of the two openings just didn't work out. Smith had already applied at Lucy Beckham and believed in the administration to the point that he was willing to come over as a teacher even if he didn’t land the coaching job. He says he’d like to have a few Wando assistants join him on his staff at Lucy Beckham but that will depend on availability and opportunity within the school as well as the athletic department.
Lucy Beckham will play two years of junior varsity football before entering the varsity ranks in 2022. It’s the long play in an era of instant gratification. Smith is willing to be patient, looking forward to the extra time he'll be able to spend developing the youth and establishing a culture within the new football program.
“We’re going to play with a lot of energy and emotion. The kids can follow my lead,” Smith said. “Hungry, disciplined, ready to get after it, that’s the type of attitude we want to have from the top down.”
Smith is complex. He was an imposing figure when he lined up on defense. He laid crushing hits. Foster keeps one of his favorites — a flattening pass break-up against Clemson — toward the front of his highlight reel.
But Smith is also the guy who’s terrified to fly on airplanes. Something about the lack of control if something goes wrong — it must be the coach in him. A little turbulence and he balls up like a baby. "Call me what you want," he says with a laugh. Smith likes to laugh. He likes to sing new hip-hop songs with his players, even when he doesn't know all the words. He might tell a joke to lighten the mood, then an hour later rally his linebackers like a general storming into battle.
“It isn’t all peaches and cream all the time. It can't be,” he said. “We’re growing young men. I come from the old school where you earn everything you get. We’re going to have fun but when you cross those lines it’s all business. We’re going to earn everything we get on that field.”
The lasting effects of Smith's pregame speech are put to test as the game outlasts regulation and enters overtime.
Wando scores first. A defensive stand can win the game. Smith's eyes are as round as golf balls as he calls in the play. The ball is placed on the 3-yard line with the game hanging in the balance.
The Warriors defense swarms at the goal line, something like a pride of lions on a hunt. The mob crashes to the ground, short of the end zone. Game over. Wando's sideline erupts. Smith is out in front, bouncing into the air to chest bump whoever is ready. He lets out a yell of satisfaction upon landing.
His sound is distinct. His coaching style seems to be too. Mount Pleasant will be getting more familiar with both in the years to come.