A decade ago, the Arizona Wildcats had just capped off the best season in school history with a 23-20 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Holiday Bowl. UA finished the season with a 12-1 record. One of the main reasons for the Wildcats success was quarterback Keith Smith.
Smith is often regarded as one of the best quarterbacks to ever wear an Arizona uniform. He spent 1996-99 under center and the Wildcats improved each of his first three years, which included bowl victories in consecutive years for the first time in school history.
After college, Smith played football professionally in Canada and was successful early for the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders. Injuries eventually forced him out of the game in 2004.
Currently an assistant coach for Newbury Park High School in California, Smith still follows UA football religiously. GOAZCATS.com caught up with Smith to talk about his playing days, life after his Arizona playing day and coaching among other topics.
GOAZCATS.com: After you finished your college career, you played professionally in Canada. Talk about the CFL game and how it differs from the game we see down here.
Keith Smith: When I was there, we actually had nine teams. Up there, it's 12-on-12. All of the receivers and running backs can all be in motion. They can be wherever they want. They can run 10 yards back and fly forward at the start of the snap. It's kind of like the Arena League, but they only designate one player that can do that. In the CFL, all players can basically run full speed at the defender and go out in their route.
One crazy thing is that the defensive line has to be a full yard off of the ball so if you get a third-and-one situation, almost every single time you are going to go for it whether you are on your own 20 or the opponent's 20 because you are pretty much going to get the first down because they are giving you the free yard. The refs are really on that. They'll throw a flag if you are not a legit yard off of the ball.
It was a good experience for me, though. I got to see pretty much all of Canada and being from California, going to that part of the world was a fun experience. Playing quarterback is even better. For the most part, the quarterbacks are 6-foot, 5-foot-11 so it was a better fit for me up there.
It's just unfortunate I ruptured my Achilles tendon and broke my ankle at the same time which kind of ended my career. I attempted a comeback but I just wasn't the same player as I was in college and the first couple of years in the CFL.
GOAZCATS.com: What did you do once your playing days ended?
Keith Smith: When I finished playing, which I believe my last year was in 2004, I lived in Tucson and was working at a gym called F.I.T. at the River which is over at the Tucson Heart Hospital. It's a fitness center and a cardiac-rehab center that I went and worked there for a couple of years. The guy who runs it is a guy named Todd Judge who was also my trainer at the time and was keeping me in shape in the offseason.
It was a great experience in personal training and dealing with cardiac-rehab patients. I made a lot of friends there. After that I decided to make a change. I basically lived in Tucson for about 10 years at that point, so I decided to come back to California and ended up living with a buddy of mine that I went to high school with and grew up with. We had a house together and I ended up coaching football and working for a sports manufacturer company out here in Southern California.
It's flexible enough to where I am able to coach. They have the flexibility during the high school football season so I can get off at around 2:30 or 3:00 and still pay my bills. I have enjoyed it.
We have been fortunate enough at our school to have solid athletes come through here; our program has been doing very well and we have put a lot of players in Division-I programs.
GOAZCATS.com: It has been a while since you were a player at UA and John Mackovic was there after you, but being an alum and seeing where the program has gone from when you were there to the downs of the Mackovic era, to this past season when Arizona finally made a bowl game, what do you think of the job that head coach Mike Stoops has done in his time at Arizona?
Keith Smith: Well, I think he has done wonders. I'm glad they have actually been patient enough to let him develop his program because sometimes fans and media and people want it turned around right away. You have to remind yourselves that you are dealing with 18, 19 and 20 year old kids year in and year out.
Finally he got a chance to have a senior class come through there and develop and have experienced quarterbacks, experienced receivers and some good talent on the offensive line that can make for a good season. That's when you finally can start going to recruit and get better kids recruiting wise by having the season we just did.
Next year we are going to have a young quarterback and a bunch of tough road games. It could be a 5-7 season, you don't know, because it's a new season. You even see teams like Tennessee struggle just because it's just a down year. Now the goal is to be 8-4 or 9-3 every year but the job (Stoops) did this year, I thought was fantastic.
I went up to the Las Vegas Bowl and I think it's been great. Offensively, coming from pretty much being near last to being in the upper echelon of offenses in the country in just a few years, it shows something for what Sonny Dykes has done.
I've had a chance to talk to coach David Nichol. He's recruiting our area and I think those guys have done a fabulous job just getting our program where it needs to be. I hope they stay for a long time. I really do, because it's going to attract offensive players like Adam Hall, who we are recruiting pretty hard and hopefully we get him.
I think you are seeing players like Matt Scott and top kids from California come to Arizona because of the fact that Arizona is running the same spread offense schemes that a lot of the high schools in Southern California and Texas and those guys are running. I think it's an easy adjustment for a high school kid to come into an offense like Arizona's spread. I think that's great.
GOAZCATS.com: You were a great quarterback at UA, so what are your impressions of Willie Tuitama and how he was able to end his career?
Keith Smith: The last few games I thought he was phenomenal. His poise, I mean, it's a lot of pressure on him. You know everyone is always judging the quarterback. You know I have been there. I think Willie this year was to the point where he has been through everything: A losing season to throwing for a lot of yards without winning a lot of games.
He's heard it all to where it didn't phase him and I think he was like 'Yeah, whatever," and it was going in one ear and out the other and not really listening to what everyone was saying and just went out and played. I think it showed his experience in road games and also being confident as a senior quarterback. It was like he knew the offense just as well as the offensive coordinator and that's what the goal is.
I thought Willie had an amazing career. I think he is definitely one of the best quarterbacks that Arizona has ever had, for sure. I wish I could have played in an offense like he did. Man, that would have been fantastic.
GOAZCATS.com: It's been a while since the 12-1 season when Arizona competed for a Rose Bowl and had a shot at a National Title. What was that season like for you?
Keith Smith: Man, honestly, I think a big part of why we ended up doing so well was the way we scheduled that year. We started with Hawaii and Stanford and Hawaii and Stanford were not quality programs at that point. We played terrible against Hawaii and we still ended up coming out of there with, I think, a 27-6 victory.
Then we went up to Stanford and came with a win by just a couple of touchdowns and it just gave us confidence to where now we play Iowa and then we just started steamrolling people until we ran into UCLA. Even then, our confidence level that we built when we were 5-0 and 6-0 was so high that it kind of feels like you can't be beat. It's kind of a mindset. Everyone was focused.
I think we had maybe one injury that year and it might have been an ankle roll by a defensive lineman, if I really remember that correctly. I think being healthy - our running backs never got hurt, our receivers never got hurt - and I think that's why you have those great seasons like that.
We were also fortunate I think in a few of the years where we recruited really well out of junior colleges. We brought in some big offensive linemen in and got some good talent at receiver with Jeremy McDaniel. If you look at all of the positions, we had a lot of guys that went to the NFL off of that team.
There was a good mesh of juniors and seniors and I don't really recall there being too many freshman and sophomores starting. There may have been one or two. The age factor matters and when you get a bunch of 22 and 23-year olds out there versus 19-year olds, you are going to beat people.
When you talk about the way the season was, walking around campus and people are asking for your autograph, we were getting ESPN Gameday and I got a chance to be on the Jim Rome Show. Winning was doing everything for the program. It was giving us more notoriety as a team; Just the fact that we were winning ball games. The experience was phenomenal. I wish I could relive it.
GOAZCATS.com: What was your favorite moment as a Wildcat?
Keith Smith: Obviously, beating Arizona State at home during that '98 year - I think it was 50-42. We originally thought we were going to the Rose Bowl but then UCLA lost to Miami and we settled for the Holiday Bowl, but the energy in the stadium that night was amazing. I mean, we were all running around with roses in our mouth thinking we were going to the Rose Bowl and we had beaten Arizona State. We were 11-1. There was so many cool things going on, it was awesome.
Obviously another memory was beating Nebraska, for sure. I mean you dream about playing the big games like that and if you look at that team, it was loaded. They had a bunch of guys on that team that went to the NFL. I think they were 9-3, they just had a rookie quarterback, but their freshman quarterback was Eric Crouch and he ended up winning the Heisman. To beat a team like that in a big game, a close game, in that environment, in that stadium, on that night was unbelievable. It was awesome.
From an individual experience, me playing at places like Ohio State and Penn State with big 100,000 people crowds, it was fun to play in that atmosphere.
GOAZCATS.com: Do you still keep in contact with any of your former teammates?
Keith Smith: Every now and then I will talk to (Dennis) Northcutt or Bobby Wade or Lance Briggs. I think there is going to be a football camp out there around March, April or May. I'm going to be headed out that way. I think Bobby Wade, Lance Briggs and Adrian Peterson are going to be doing something out that way. So maybe I'll head out there and rap with those guys for a little bit, but I haven't had a chance to talk to them about that yet.
GOAZCATS.com: Finally, are you pleased with the direction that Arizona football is headed?
Keith Smith: Oh yeah, I think we are headed in the right direction. I think the big factor in this is keeping the coaching staff together and improving the younger guys, getting those guys stronger and faster. I think that's the main focus. I think once you start messing around with coaching staffs you have to play catch-up all of the time. I think if you can keep the staff together and everyone is on the same page and has the same goal, I think that makes the program better.