Before Jerry Kill had Jordan Lynch and Mitch Leidner, he had Mark Smith.
The lineage of Kill’s strong running quarterbacks really stretches back to his first head coaching job, at Webb City (Mo.) High School.
Smith was in eighth grade and didn’t even play football when Kill arrived as Webb City’s new coach in 1988.
“I thought I was heading to the NBA,” Smith said Saturday, after watching a Gophers spring practice. “Coach Kill talked to me, and he told me I was going to play quarterback, and I was like, OK.”
Webb City had a decent football program, good enough to win a conference title here and there but never a state championship.
“Coach Kill got to town, and he went to all the schools and wanted any male student to at least come and listen to him talk about the program,” Smith said. “I remember thinking, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’
“He looks like he did then, only he had a little bit thicker hair and glasses. But he came in there, he had the chubby old finger sticking up there, telling everybody how great football was going to be. He said, ‘Just give them the opportunity, people will get so excited, they’ll be throwing babies in the aisle.’”
In the fall of 1988, Smith played linebacker as a freshman under Kill as Webb City went 11-1. The next year, Smith played quarterback, and the team went 14-0, winning Missouri’s 4A State Championship.
There’s a fantastic highlight video from that season, featuring an interview with Kill, who sounded the same as he does now, talking behind those huge glasses. Smith looked like a man among boys, even as a sophomore.
Kill left the following year to become the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh (Kan.) State. Smith eventually went to Arkansas, where he played four years and became an All-SEC linebacker. He also played two seasons with the Chiefs.
These days, Smith still lives in Southwest Missouri and works as a regional insulin salesman for Norvo Nordisk.
“I mean 25 years later, I still remember [Kill’s coaching],” Smith said. “He talked about the mental aspect of the game, being able to handle adversity. That’s a blue-collar town anyway. The kids were all close, and he just kind of tied it all together and told us to go.
“It was one of those deals that kids are looking for a leader, and for some unknown reason Coach Kill showed up in Webb City.”
For Smith’s 40th birthday, his wife surprised him with a trip to go visit Jerry and Rebecca Kill in Minnesota. Smith is staying at their house this weekend.
“It’s the best present I’ve ever gotten,” Smith said. “It’s been 25 years, and he’s a head coach at a Division I school. My wife calls him up, and he opens up his home to me,” Smith said. “That tells you what kind of person he is.”