Oct. 3, 2013
Melvin Smith teaches football and accountability to Auburn's cornerbacks (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - In the decades since he left his daddy's farm. Melvin Smith has been a coach with a thirst for competition, a mentor with lessons to offer about living and winning, and a soldier with a deep and abiding love for his country.
In all those things, he's been first and foremost a teacher.
"Football is like walking and talking," says Smith, who teaches his vision of football and living to Auburn cornerbacks. "It's who I am. If I had not been on the football field, I'd have been a fulltime drill instructor. I like teaching men. I like instructing men to do different things and get better at what they do. I always said if I wasn't coaching I'd have been training troops."
Even as he started his coaching career in 1982 at Greenwood (Miss.) High School, Smith was fascinated by the military. By the time he became an assistant at Delta State in 1990, he'd joined the Army Reserves for a stint that would eventually last eight years. He didn't know it at the time, but the adventure of a lifetime was at hand.
"I could be a part-time soldier," Smith says. "I could stay in shape. I could pick up some extra income. It made a lot of sense to me. It's one of the best things I ever did. The only reason I got out was I just didn't have the time to devote to it."
In the fall of 1990, Smith's unit was activated. He soon found himself in Saudi Arabia as part of Desert Shield and then Desert Storm. And he was still teaching. His duty was to prepare soldiers for the proper responses in the event of chemical weapons attacks.
Was he frightened at the prospect of going off to war? You bet he was.
"Probably, from the time I got on that plane I was frightened," Smith says. "But when you are frightened you pay attention. Any time you go through something and make it through it, there is value to it that you can access and use."
Smith learned lessons of accountability and determination that he still uses today when he prepares Auburn cornerbacks for what they face on the football field and off.
"There are times you need to lead and there are times you need to follow," Smith says. "And there are times that I need to lead and times I need to move away from the situation. When you are a cornerback there are going to be days you don't like yourself, there are going to be some days I don't like you and there are going to be some days you are going to love what you do and the fans are going to love what you do.
"Playing that position, everything you do is exposed. You can't fake it. It is what it is. Our guys have really done the nice job of handling the ups and downs of SEC cornerback play."
Smith's oldest daughter, Deondra, is a staff sergeant in the Army. His oldest son served in the Army and works now at Fort Hood.
"They have order in their lives," Smith says. "If nothing else, in the military you find it's all about order. You learn that rank has its privilege. You learn how important it is to adhere to the chain of command. I just think when you serve your country, we all embrace freedom and justice for all.
"I use the military in coaching. I teach my corners that they are on guard duty. When I'm on guard duty, I'm going to guard my post. I'm going to quit my post only when I'm properly relieved."
Smith will coach his fifth Auburn game Saturday when the Tigers (3-1, 1-1) play Ole Miss (3-1, 1-1) at Jordan-Hare Stadium. It will be Military Appreciation Day.
"Being an American and being free is something we often take for granted," Smith says. "I have a lot of respect for those people that serve. It's something I'm proud I got a chance to do."
Smith's skills and resolve have been put to the test this season. Senior Chris Davis, the unchallenged leader of Auburn's secondary, hasn't played since the second game because of a leg injury. Sophomore Jonathan Jones hasn't played at all. Senior Ryan White and junior Jonathon Mincy have held things together.
"I can't do anything but praise the way the guys have embraced the situation," Smith says.
Davis and Jones are expected to be available Saturday night against Ole Miss. Smith says freshmen Kamryn Melton and Johnathon Ford, though getting little playing time, have also made dramatic progress. Redshirt freshman T.J. Davis, who started his Auburn career as a cornerback before moving to safety, is a cornerback again.
"I've tried to deal with one day at a time," Smith says, "and not worry about who I don't have but try to focus on the guys I do have."
Mincy says Smith has made a difference in his life and the lives of his teammates. And he's had a major impact on how they play the game.
"He's been everything you could ask for in a coach, and even more as a father figure and a mentor," Mincy says. "We can go talk to him about anything. We are kind of like sponges when it comes to everything he's saying. We pay heed to everything he says.
"He's helped me dramatically. I feel more comfortable and more confident than I ever have at Auburn. It's just a blessing. I'm very grateful he had the opportunity to come here and coach us."
Smith is the only coach on Auburn's staff who has competed against a Hugh Freeze-coached Ole Miss team. He was the cornerbacks coach at Mississippi State last season when the Bulldogs were soundly beaten 41-24. It was their fourth loss in five games after a 7-0 start.
"They really worked on us last year, especially in the second half," Smith says. "I had some really good players, and they really worked on us. They have some really talented players. ... I learned probably more as a coach last year than any time in my career. I didn't know how beneficial it would be moving forward. I saw a team go from 7-0 to trying to figure out a way to win one more game. I really learned a lot."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: