Mike Smith's Rebels Shaped by Coach's Military Background

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Mike Smith sits at his desk and stares intently at his computer screen in his office one afternoon in early February. A 2018 season with lofty expectations attached to it is set to begin in Gulf Shores, Alabama in a couple days and Smith is meticulously charting film before practice.

On the wall behind him hang three paintings, one of his son, Tyler, jumping on his back after Ole Miss won a regional it hosted last May, one of his team hoisting its 2017 SEC Tournament Championship Trophy and one of the SEC Championship ring itself.

Naturally, Smith is faced the other way staring at film in preparation for what is next, with those memories hanging in the background.

"We're no longer the hunters," Smith said. "We are the hunted. We have to bring our best every time we play."

His desk and the rest of his office look like something out of a magazine. Not a pen or sheet of paper is out of place or straying from its intended position. It's a microcosm for how Smith operates, a meticulous and detailed oriented coach with constant tunnel vision towards his next challenge.

"I always take the philosophy that someone is doing more than me," Smith said. "I am an early riser. I go to bed a little earlier than most, but I still try to stay late as much as possible. I feel like I never get enough done during the day."

A native of San Diego, California, Smith is the son of a military man. His father, Robert, served in the Navy and later became a systems analyst at North Island Naval Base in San Diego where he worked closely with Navy seals. Mike sometimes would accompany his father to work. A lot of his teachers and youth sports coaches were active or retired military members.

"Being able to be around Navy Seals and watching what they go through on a daily basis makes you appreciate everything that you do and the details that go into things," Smith said.

Smith learned from observing his father as well and often thought of following in his footsteps. He played baseball in college and was hours away from enlisting in the Navy after his phone didn't ring during the MLB draft.

"I was literally hours away from going to the recruiting office for the Navy and signing up. Something told me 'no, don't go yet,'" Smith recalled.

He ended up signing with the St. Louis Cardinals, which gradually led him into a career in coaching baseball and eventually softball.

The structure and discipline that is ingrained into Smith's military background and up bringing are also at the core of his coaching philosophy. As Ole Miss Softball continues on its meteoric rise, it has become more evident that traces of Smith's military roots can be found all over a program he's built from the ground up.

"It was just watching my dad on a daily basis. You tucked your shirt in and your belt buckle was fastened a certain way," Smith said. "That is just how I was taught. I try to instill that in our players today. Sometimes they are like 'Coach why is that a big deal?' It is a big deal to me because that is part of that structure and discipline and doing things the right way. If you do those things right you don't have to worry about what you are doing on the field in a game. That will take care of itself."

Smith's no stranger to a bare cupboard. His first coaching job came at Biola University, where he inherited a club team that was transitioning to varsity and boasted an all-time record of 17-121. In Smith's first season they went 22-23. A few short years later, he won a national title.

"I knew I could coach," Smith said. "I knew what I wanted and what I could get out of my athletes. If they can walk and talk, I can at least train them up to compete. They may have been the most talented kids in the world, but they understood what we were trying to do and worked really hard."

When Smith took over a floundering program in Oxford with no tangible evidence of success to point to, he asked his players to buy into his philosophy knowing it was not for everyone. He asked them to go all in and "function as one unit," as former player Miranda Strother recalled.

"There is some head butting sometimes with players because that is not what they grew up with in their own families," Smith said. "My own kids sometimes have issues with that too because their friends aren't parented like that. But I said that is the way we are going to run this family and they respect that."

It wasn't a seamless transition by any means and Smith knew it wouldn't be easy on the players, but the repeated struggles of the program's past made it all the more necessary.

"He came in and wanted to completely transform the culture," former catcher Courtney Syrett said. "Obviously, anyone who changes the norm, people aren't going to like that. It didn't separate us as a team but rather showed light on the people that were all in."

Syrett and Strother were seniors on the 2017 team's historic run to the first super regional in program history. They were also around before Smith came and had a front row seat to the program's evolution.

Smith's practices utilize every second allotted to him on the field. He creates an environment of "controlled chaos" with the philosophy being that if his players can perform in the adverse practice situations, the games should come as second nature. He sends his players the practice itinerary each day so they can prepare accordingly.

"We know what we are wearing a month in advance and know exactly what we are going to do," Strother said. "He sends us a practice schedule each morning so you are ready to go and completely prepared once you get there. That is nice because you can get your mind right for that type of defense or this hitting session. It is nice knowing what we are doing. We didn't have that structure before and he plans down to a tee."

Smith's first season in 2015 saw just about every major offensive school-record get broken. His second saw the team win its first postseason game in program history in a regional at Oklahoma.

"When we made that first regional at Oklahoma that is when I knew we could compete with anyone," Syrett said. "That helped us so much going into last year."

There was finally something tangible to point towards the method to his madness.

"He told us 'I have seen this work.,'" Strother recalled. "This is how we are going to do it. You are going to have to trust me.' It was a trust thing."

Those two seasons parlayed into 2017, the most successful season in program-history. In three short years, Smith took a program that had never scored a run in the SEC Tournament to an SEC Championship and a regional in Oxford.

For as much as Smith leans on structure, discipline and accountability, he knows there has to be a balance. He lets his players play freely, chanting in the dugout, letting their emotions come out in a controlled and productive manner. As hard as the practices were, this team had an aura about them that reached people across the country.

"I think the best part of this summer was the constant communication with people telling us how much fun we were to watch," Smith said. "I even had fans of teams that we played say they were rooting for us after the fact because they wanted to see a Cinderella story."

When the Rebels jetted across the country to Los Angeles to play UCLA in a pair of nationally televised super regional games on ESPN, the moment wasn't too large for a team that had never been in that kind of spotlight.

"He left room for us to be who we are," Strother said. "He had us in the place where we were all level headed. Practice like a champion, play like an underdog. You go into the game with the mentality. We had nothing to lose."

Strother and Syrett graduated after the 2017 season and sometimes find themselves a little surprised of how far they came from a woeful freshman season.

"If you asked me during my freshman year if I saw us not only playing in a regional but hosting and having that many people packing the stands, lines of people outside your game, I would have never imagined that," Strother said. "I knew there would be a culture change and things would be different, but it far exceeded my expectations."

It didn't come as a surprise to Smith, however. It was merely a part of the plan, one that is still unfolding and isn't nearly complete.

"Coach Smith is a visionary," Strother said. "I think he expected this. He's thinks this is great and all but he wants more. He thinks we have more to show."

Smith's father passed away in August, two months after the most successful season of his son's career. Ole Miss playing in Los Angeles allowed him to make it to a game and be a witness to it. He fell ill in between game one and game two and was hospitalized with Mike's mother at his side.

"My dad had an enormous influence on me," Smith said. "It was pretty special for him to be able to see that."

Robert retired as an honorary Navy Seal. He's buried in Rosecrans Military Cemetery, the final resting place of over 20 medal of honor recipients. Fencing and trees line most of the cemetery's borders but Robert's plot is near the end of a row where the trees dip down below fence level creating roughly a 10x10 gap that overlooks downtown San Diego and North Island Naval Base. Here Mike can visit and peacefully gaze at all of the things that made him the coach he is today.

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Recent Comments

    Tiffany J. Moore said:

    This is amazing with what he have done so far! Hope that he'll achieve more in the future!

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    Fiftyyears fan said:

    How can you have five straight top 25 recruiting classes and look as bad as Ole Miss has this year. Easy lack of coaching fundamentals. Look at Mason at Vandy, nothing but 2 and 3 star recruits out of high school and he developers players that want to win. Hugh freeze has 3, 4 & 5 recruits and he expects them to win because of what they were in High School. Mr. Freeze you have not been teaching the fundamentals of football or winning in life. Mr. Freeze you have quit on your players because you have some false expectations of what they are instead of what you can develop in them. Either do your job or quit. Oh yea, please quit running your smoke and mirrors offense, everyone has figured it out. Run a physical offense that can open up holes for your running backs and then your pass attack want require 12 are 14 four and five star receivers. Mr. Freeze you have problems and you need to know that you are not smarter than the rest of the coaches in the SEC.

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    Karen Holden said:

    Not every pass can be caught. Too low, too short whatever. Not every Kelly pass is perfect. Records were broken by receivers also. But they sre not going to catch every ball thrown. The loss to Auburn was not one players fault. You win or lose as a team.

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