June 14, 2016

Coming full circle for Craig Smith

Craig Smith has been all over the North American football map, at various points proudly flying the colours of the UBC Thunderbirds, B.C. Lions, Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Saskatchewan Roughriders.

And yet it seems only fitting that the next chapter in the career of one of the most respected personnel men in the Canadian Football League – a guy who played for the Transcona Nationals and St. Vital Mustangs and can still recall details of the first game he ever attended – would be with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“This is like a dream for me. I mean, wow, to be going to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers… that’s pretty special.”

Craig Smith

Smith was named the Bombers’ new National Scout, replacing Drew Morris who has left the club for the New York Jets.

The move represents a full circle of sorts for Smith, who was caught in the Saskatchewan Roughriders offseason purge and looked to be out of the CFL personnel game for the first time since the late 1990s.

He had been let go while on a trip last December to scout Josiah St. John of the Oklahoma Sooners – the Riders ended up selecting him first overall, although he is currently holding out – and still filed a report on the big offensive lineman even after he had been told his contract wouldn’t be renewed.

Craig_Smith_2010_13422Unable to land anything in the CFL despite spending the last 15 years finding talent for the Lions, TiCats and Riders – he was the man who brought Ryan Smith to Regina, among others – Smith desperately wanted to stay in the game and took a term position as the receivers coach at Simon Fraser, a move that was to reunite him with friendly former CFL faces in Kelly Bates and Joe Paopao.

Smith was actually in a Skype conversation with Paopao when Bombers GM Kyle Walters texted him with a job offer.

“It happened awful quick,” said Smith. “That’s the way it is in this game. One day I get a call from Chris Jones telling me they are going in a different direction and then another a few months I am getting a call from Kyle. But it’s interesting, a couple of days after I got the news from the Riders one of the first people to call me was Mike O’Shea, just to see how I was doing. I thought that was pretty cool, pretty darn nice. And now here I am going to work with him.

“When Kyle offered, I couldn’t believe it. It’s the craziest business in the world, it really is. I take pride in my work and I think I do a good job. (Personnel) is where my passion is.

“It’s funny, last week I wanted to watch practice and I didn’t feel comfortable going to practice in Saskatchewan so I drove to Winnipeg and stayed with a friend. I was sitting there and it felt like old times.”

Smith’s connection to the Bombers as a diehard fan dates back decades, back to the glory days of the late 1950s-early 1960s and then through the most recent championship era of 1984-90.

“I’m dating myself here, but my first game was the 1962 West Final against Calgary,” Smith recalled. “Farrell Funston fell on the ball in the end zone and scored a touchdown and the Bombers went to the Grey Cup and won.

“We lived in Transcona. This is how long ago it was… I’d get on the bus, for a dime, and it would get me to City Hall and then I’d get a transfer and get on the Polo Park bus and I’d do that a couple times a week to watch practice.

“I’d go down and get them to sign my autograph book. Looking back, it was kind of silly because some of them must have signed my book 80 times, but I did it so I could talk to the players. (He and his wife Cathy) were there in 1984 in Edmonton and were ecstatic. We were in the stands in 1990 when we beat the crap out of Edmonton and that was the greatest day. Since then I’ve rubbed shoulders with James West, I know Hufnagel, Danny McManus, Sammy Garza… all these guys.

“And now all these years later I’m back.”

Interestingly, it was during one of his many trips to the Grey Cup that led to his start in the game. A graduate of the University of Manitoba and Red River Community College as a computer programmer/analyst, Smith was interviewed for a job at UBC while at the 1987 Grey Cup in Vancouver.

He got that job and three years later was leafing through a Vancouver newspaper when he spotted an ad looking for football coaches for the Westside Warriors amateur football programs. He started coaching peewee aged kids and was instantly hooked.

“I went from the peewees to the pros in 11 years. I’m pretty proud of that,” he said. “I got my big break when Casey Smith asked me to be a guest coach at UBC in 1995 and was on the staff part time while working as a computer operator at UBC. I couldn’t get enough information about the game then. I joined the American Football Coaches Association, went to the clinics… I was right into it.

“I remember calling Adam Rita when he was with B.C. and asked if there was anything in personnel. Years later I was coaching on Steve Burrato’s staff when we won the Grey Cup and Adam remembered I had a liking for personnel and in 2001 I was put right into. I’ve been doing it for 15 years now and absolutely love it.

“But it was July 1st, 1990 when I first got the job to coach those peewee kids. That day changed my life.”


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