Most things considered — like where they were a few months ago, without football — this past weekend could not have ended much better for Skip Holtz and J’Mar Smith, the coach and quarterback, respectively, of the USFL’s inaugural champions.
These past few months while most of us weren’t caring much about football since there was grass to mow, golf to play and springtime to enjoy, something weird was going, something just curious enough that a few of us had to pay attention to, of all places, Birmingham.
Former Louisiana Tech football personnel kept showing up on Birmingham’s USFL roster.
By the time it was over, six former Bulldogs were Stallions. Plus there was Holtz, the coach and general manager. Even Bill Johnson, former Tech assistant and former player and assistant at Northwestern State, coached the defensive line.
Birmingham had a Winnfield East feel to it.
If anyone around here cared, it was probably because the two Stallions you kept wondering about most were Holtz, the former Tech head coach, and Smith, his three-year starter at quarterback. To see how this latest chapter between them would turn out, their head-shaking history demanded your attention — even though caring at all was sort of like holding a lit firecracker.
If you saw it up close, you can attest that it was a history both heartbreaking and happy, misunderstood and mystical. One of those “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” deals.
In a football throne room in some alternate universe where futures are formed from circumstances that mere mortals could never have dreamed up, some pigskin wise guy had to think it would be fun to take a football lifer in this 50s and, for a few spasmodic years, join him to the hip of a wildly athletic, happy-go-lucky teenager from Mississippi.
There’s no other way to explain the long relationship between these two. Seems they’ve been together longer than the Rolling Stones.
Football makes strange bedfellows.
Holtz began recruiting Smith when he was in high school in Meridian. The two teamed to help the Bulldogs win bowl games in 2017, 2018, and 2019, when Smith was Conference USA’s Offensive Player of the Year.
No conference titles, though. Holtz really couldn’t let Smith run much as a sophomore and junior because the backup spot was thin. And when Smith was a senior, he missed two late-in-the-season conference games due to breaking a team rule. Tech lost both — although in defense of the team, the Bulldogs dropped a pass on a late bomb against UAB that likely would have won the game. And the Division. And a spot in the title game.
Tech shut out Miami, 14-0, in the Independence Bowl and finished a “what if?” 10-3.
Goodbye J’Mar, hello pandemic. In 2020, Tech stopped and started its way to a 5-5 record, including a 38-3 loss to Georgia Southern in the New Orleans Bowl. In 2021, Tech lost last-play games to Mississippi State, SMU, and N.C. State and limped in at 3-9.
Holtz was fired in late November before the final game of the 2021 season.
Two months later, he was named coach and GM at Birmingham. And in the USFL draft in the 12th round, Holtz selected J’Mar Smith, who’d had no success with New England as a free agent and with Hamilton in the CFL. Six months after he was cut by the Tiger-Cats, Smith was in Birmingham and, finally, a pro football player.
Six weeks later when the 2022 season opened, probably the best thing that could have happened for Holtz, Smith, and Birmingham, did. Starting quarterback Ale McGough left in the second half with a minor injury and Smith, who majors in the unrehearsed, helped bring the Stallions back from trailing three times, including scrambling for a 2-yard touchdown on a drawn-in-the-sand play with :29 left that gave Birmingham a 28-24 win, the first of eight straight victories.
The Stallions needed a guy who could wing it on the fly with Holtz’s direction; J’Mar is the blueprint for that.
Sunday it was McGough’s turn to spell a cramping Smith and complete a couple of key passes late as Birmingham beat Philadelphia, 33-30, to win it all.
With a different cast and almost entirely different circumstances, what didn’t quite happen in Ruston for the Odd Couple happened in Birmingham. Afterward a smiling and blunt Holtz, for the first time the coach of an 11-win team, said he’d “really enjoyed coaching professional football, every minute of it,” emphasizing the “professional.” And Smith was all near-tears smiles when he said he “owed” this one to his coach.
Funny how ball does that sort of thing. Puts people together at just the right or wrong time in just the right or wrong situation. For some, the time never comes, or comes too late. For Holtz and J’Mar, maybe too late for Tech was, in a future no one knows, right on time for them.
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