NFL's first female coach anticipates more to follow
PITTSFORD, N.Y. (AP) Reserved and unaccustomed to the spotlight, Kathryn Smith still has difficulty putting into perspective what it's like to be the NFL's first full-time female assistant coach.
''It's crazy,'' Smith says when reminded of the nationwide attention she's drawn – including a retweet by Chelsea Clinton – in the eight months since Rex Ryan promoted her to be Buffalo Bills special teams quality control coach.
Though it was Smith's intention to pursue a career in athletics when choosing to major in sports management at St. John's in 2003, she never knew where that path might eventually lead. Football was an option. So was basketball.
And the 31-year-old three-sport high school athlete from suburban Syracuse, New York, never anticipated she would one day be recognized for breaking the gender barrier of North America's most popular sport.
If that makes Smith somewhat of a reluctant trail blazer, then so be it.
''That's not been my focus,'' Smith says of generating headlines. ''But, at the same time, if that shows somebody if you work hard that you can do whatever you set your mind to, and if that's the message that's getting across to girls, boys, whoever it is, then I think that's a good thing.''
What would be even better is if Smith gained some female company on NFL sidelines.
''I don't think it's as far down the road as maybe other people do,'' she says. ''I might be the first. But I don't think I'll be the only one for very long.''
Women have gradually made inroads in professional football, first at the executive and ownership levels, and now on the field.
The first real glimpses began last summer when Jen Welter served a six-week training camp internship coaching Arizona Cardinals inside linebackers. And then there's Sarah Thomas, who last year became the NFL's first full-time female on-field official.
Tony Dungy believes the trend will grow.
''The future is unlimited,'' the former coach said last week before his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. ''We will see female coaches because they can coach the game. We see females officiating in the NBA and the NFL. It's just a matter of time that we'll see more.''
The key, Dungy says, is for head coaches to begin thinking outside the box, as Ryan and Arizona's Bruce Arians have done.
''For so long, we had a characterization of what we thought coaches were, and now a number of coaches are going against the grain,'' he said. ''Coaches should not be fit in boxes.''
It's not as if women don't follow football. The NFL says 52.6 million female viewers watched this year's Super Bowl, the second most behind last year's game.
Smith's ascension into coaching is owed in large part to Ryan. Upon taking over as New York Jets coach in 2009, Ryan first noticed Smith's potential when she worked as the team's player personnel assistant. Ryan took Smith under his wing by promoting her to be his administrative assistant. Ryan then brought her to Buffalo when he was hired by the Bills in January 2015. He elevated her to the position of administrative assistant to his assistant coaches, with a particular emphasis on special teams.
Aside from working with coordinator Danny Crossman, Smith also gained an opportunity to interact with players. She did such a good job that Crossman wasn't surprised in January when Ryan informed him of his plan to promote Smith.
''Coaching is teaching, and teaching is communicating,'' Crossman says. ''So a hard worker who's a good communicator and works hard, yeah, why not?''
Now, it's on Smith to find her voice and niche, Crossman said.
''I think she's still finding it,'' he says, noting Smith's true development will start once the Bills begin playing games.
That comes Saturday, when Smith will be on the sideline for Buffalo's preseason opener against Indianapolis.
Anna Isaacson, the NFL's senior vice president of social responsibility, says Smith's presence on the field is an invaluable example to women. She recalled what former tennis star Billie Jean King said during a women's summit the NFL held during this year's Super Bowl festivities.
''She said, `If you see it, you can be it,''' Isaacson says. ''If you're a little girl, and you see someone in a position that looks like you, then you believe you can be that person. And that oftentimes is a huge motivator.''
Bills fan Julie Schmidt says Smith's promotion can inspire her 12-year-old daughter Aubrey, who sat beside her in the stands during a recent training camp practice.
''I think it's fantastic that the Bills have shown they can think beyond the box that they're living in,'' Schmidt says. ''I think it shows our youth that the possibilities are endless.''
Kathryn Smith is in no position to look too far ahead. Like any coach, her job security is measured by what happens on game day.
''I'm the QC, so I'm at the bottom of the totem pole, and I'm just trying to get my work done, and do it as best as I possibly can,'' Smith says. ''My focus right now is this year, this season, Indy on Saturday, Week 1. I can't really look too far beyond that right now.''
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner contributed to this report.
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