Timing is everything.
In early 2020, the “rebooted” XFL was finding it’s footing. Ratings were respectable. Creative rules sped up game-play. Who’s to say this version of the league wouldn’t have eventually carved out a piece of the football pie?
Instead, the clock struck midnight on the spring football league. The XFL became the first sports league casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, halting operations before eventually succumbing to the stoppage in play all together. Just a month after the final game was played, the league filed for bankruptcy.
Lost in it all were 500 or so players, 80 plus coaches, and the dying promise every spring league hopes to inspire: a second chance.
“We were five and oh with the XFL Roughnecks,” recounts former Roughnecks coach AJ Smith. Smith was the wide-receivers coach for the league’s most exciting offense. Even more exciting? The powers that be had identified him as a potential offensive coordinator for the following season.
The pandemic had other ideas. “Boom. Everything is gone.
What do you do?”
If you’re Smith, the plan was to do nothing. Months before, his budding professional coaching career seemed ready to kick into high gear. Now, the future was murky and full of doubt.
Timing really is everything, isn’t it?
Smith decided the best use of his time would be to play in a semi-professional football league. You, of course, can’t do that without the proper equipment. So the former Calvary wide-receiver made a call to the Cavaliers current coach, Rodney Guin, asking to borrow a helmet.
That’s what Smith remembers about that conversation. Utter confusion from the coach he remembered coaching his first game against back in 2009 as a member of the Airline coaching staff. Guin was leading Haughton back then. Lining up for the Bucs that day at quarterback? Current NFL super-star Dak Prescott.
Little did Smith know, the Cavaliers had a budding quarterback star of their own. When the prospective semi-pro quarterback made his way up to Calvary to retrieve a helmet, that’s when Coach Guin laid it out on the table.
“They gave me the helmet, and they offered the job to me right then and there,” said Smith. There was one significant problem. “I told them, the issue is I don’t really live in Shreveport.”
Then Smith paused.
“But I guess I don’t really live anywhere else, either, so I might as well make Shreveport home again.”
So home to Shreveport the coach returned. Before the XFL, Smith helped lead Mississippi-Ridegland Academy to their first of three straight 6A state championships. In the title game, his quarterback, Phillip Short, broke the state record for passing yards, tossing for 591 yards and five touchdowns. Now, Smith would get a chance to implement his proven system at his alma-mater.
“It was my first championship, but it wasn’t home,” recalls Smith. “It didn’t mean the same as doing it in Louisiana would.”
Remember that budding star quarterback we mentioned earlier? Landry Lyddy was entering his first season as the Cavaliers starting quarterback, but had already garnered plenty of attention on the college camp circuit. It was like Smith was returning to his long-lost home, only to find a Corvette he didn’t remember purchasing in the garage.
“(Lyddy) was the real deal. The whole time I was with him, I called him the sponge.”
That “sponge” exemplified everything Smith hoped to get from his quarterback while Lyddy’s attention to detail and talent propelled the Cavaliers back to the Division IV State Championship. A little more than a year after winning a title in Mississippi, Smith was now doing it back in his home-state.
“And Landry sits there, and he breaks the all-time passing record in the state championship game.”
Two years. Two record setting performances by his quarterbacks. Two state championships. And according to Smith, the damage to the record books could have been worse that day.
“People don’t realize, we pulled him out with ten minutes left. So it was 464 (yards), but against that deflated (Ouachita Christian) defense, he could have thrown for 600,” Smith says through a grin.
Ring after ring. Not just on his hands, but also from his phone.
“General Booty drops me a line,” says Smith. Smith’s relationship with the legendary Shreveport football family goes back years, with the coach even saying that General is like his ‘”little brother.” Whatever could his little brother want?
“Their offensive coordinator had just quit,” said Smith. Booty was at Tyler Junior College. “I joked around and said ‘Great, I’ll come be your offensive coordinator’…”
If that was a joke, Smith’s hiring at TJC was the punchline. The quarterback then led all junior college quarterbacks in passing, while breaking Southwest Conference records. Even with the success, this spring, it seemed Smith’s future at TJC was also up in the air.
“That’s when Wade Phillips called,” said Smith.
Smith’s relationship with the legendary coach goes back 13 years. The up and coming young coach met Phillips at the Angelo Coaching Clinic. At the time, Phillips was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. That didn’t stop Bum’s son from staying up past midnight with a bright eyed young coach, drawing up plays on napkins. Each year, Smith made sure to follow up with Phillips.
“I met Coach Phillips when I was 20. I’m 33 now,” said Smith. “So he’s been able to watch me grow in this profession, watch the success that I’ve had. And beyond the X’s and O’s, we just have a great relationship.”
The pair will now go from scheming up plays in hotel conference rooms to leading Houston’s XFL franchise. Wade Phillips was announced as the Houston team’s head coach. AJ Smith, the team’s offensive coordinator.
Two years before, Smith’s spring was spent in turmoil. Two years later, and the young coach will have the opportunity to lead a professional offense alongside his mentor. But it’s one particular stop in between Smith’s ascension that will always have a special place in his heart.
“Life takes an interesting path. I’ve coached in college and at the professional level. But to go back, to the school that I went to where we didn’t win a state championship and then to go do it the way we did? It’s unbelievably special to me.”
That shiny ring on his right ring finger, a product of terrible luck, painfully hard work, and adaptability.