Ex-Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith won’t let dismissal hold him down
Some fired coaches head for television jobs.
Some accept lesser positions elsewhere.
But there’s one unemployed head coach who didn’t want that to be a chapter in his professional life.
That’s why Mike Smith wrote a book.
Recalling the errors that led to his dismissal wasn’t easy. Smith, though, not only admits to losing his way with the Atlanta Falcons. Smith also makes a strong case for why it wouldn’t happen again if given another chance to head an NFL franchise in a tome co-written with renowned motivational speaker and Wall Street Journal best-selling author Jon Gordon.
"This is something that Jon and I had actually discussed for a couple years," Smith said of "You Win in the Locker Room First: The 7 C’s to Build a Winning Team in Business, Sports and Life". "We had talked about these principles for years. Jon even talked to my team about it.
"We finally decided we’d sit down and put it on paper. He would give his viewpoint and I gave mine. It was a fun process."
And a cathartic one as well.
"You Win in the Locker Room First" isn’t a tell-all about what went wrong for Smith with the Falcons. While there is plenty of blame to go around, anyone who knows Smith will tell you it isn’t in his character to name names or scapegoat others for the 2013 and 2014 seasons where Atlanta finished with a combined 10-22 record.
Smith, though, does provide insight into what he believes is the overarching reason why the Falcons stopped soaring. Smith essentially stopped following the "7 Cs" — i.e. the principals that serve as the foundation for his coaching style and the book itself.
Smith enjoyed unprecedented success during his first five seasons in Atlanta. He became the franchise’s first head coach to post back-to-back winning seasons let alone five of them between 2008 and 2012.
Making this achievement even more impressive, Smith quickly helped the Falcons move past the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino fiascos of 2007 by establishing a positive locker-room culture that players bought into.
But as Smith notes in his book, the process that had helped Atlanta flourish got derailed after the 2012 Falcons fell short in the NFC championship game to the San Francisco 49ers. Because the club almost reached a Super Bowl, Smith wrote that "getting there became the only thing we cared about. As an organization, we were obsessed . . . I allowed the pressure to steer us away from the very things that made us successful. I didn’t fight enough for our culture."
Smith said that failing truly hit home when having the chance to ponder what went wrong during his 10 weeks of writing.
"We had gotten so close to the goal of every team in the NFL," Smith told FOXSports.com in his first extensive interview since last January’s firing. "If you only focus on the fruit, you’re going to forget about the root. Then the root will wither and die."
Even though an NFC South title was still within reach, the Falcons were on life support before getting blown out in Week 17 last season by Carolina. Smith was fired the next day.
Smith quickly received multiple overtures from other teams to serve as a defensive coordinator, which is the position he held in Jacksonville before being hired in Atlanta. Smith instead decided to take a year-long hiatus from coaching after 34 straight seasons in the profession to better reconnect with his family.
As for the 2015 Falcons that stand at 7-7, Smith said he’s "very happy when the Falcons win for the guys that I coached and have spent lot of times with over last seven years." Smith, though, is more interested in bonding with his 15-year-old daughter than watching NFL games live when not having a vested interest and knowing that he can catch up on video replays. Smith attended so many of her high school lacrosse games this year that he ended up keeping the team’s scorebook.
"When you’re a coach in the NFL, family unfortunately takes a back seat," Smith said. "I believe there’s only one chance to coach your family. If you get fired from that, you’re a failure."
While now committed to making sure he pays more attention to his home life moving forward, Smith did quietly take advantage of an NFL opportunity that presented itself this fall. He would travel to league headquarters in New York City as a coaching consultant to help the officiating department review plays from during the week. As first reported last May by FOXSports.com, ex-Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz was among those hired in a similar capacity.
"It was very eye-opening to see things from the other side and how hard people at the league office and officiating department work at their jobs," Smith wrote. "It’s not easy."
Neither was winning 67 overall games in Smith’s first seven seasons as an NFL head coach. The number is greater than win totals posted by some of Smith’s Super Bowl-winning contemporaries in that same span like Tom Coughlin (62), Pete Carroll (54) and even Bill Belichick (52).
That trio all won Lombardi Trophies in later go-arounds as head coaches after getting fired. Smith hopes his entire body of work will afford him that same chance in 2016.
"I think the second time you do something you have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes," said Smith, 56. "The first time you go through something as a head coach, you’re relying on the experience of others but not your own experiences.
"I know I learned a lot from the success we had in our first five years in Atlanta and the struggles in the last two. I know I will be a much better coach and prepared to lead a team if given another opportunity."
Whether he receives that chance or not, Smith is proud of "You Win in the Locker Room First" and the positive feedback he has received.
"The principles are very simple," Smith said. "Often times, people forget how simple they are because we’re busy. We’re stressed and our lives are going in all different directions."
That isn’t the case for Smith any more.