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Smith molding coaching staff

POSTED: February 5, 2008 5:03 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

New Atlanta Falcons' Head Coach Mike Smith takes questions during the team's Thursday afternoon press conference. Smith has spent the past five years as the Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator.

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FLOWERY BRANCH — Character. Loyalty. Integrity.

They’re traits the Falcons were looking for and believe they’ve found in Mike Smith.

Smith, who most recently served as defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, was formally introduced as the team’s new coach at a press conference at the team’s facilities in Flowery Branch on Thursday. Also during the press conference, Emmitt Thomas was announced as the assistant head coach, and shortly afterward, the team announced that Brian Van Gorder would rejoin the team as defensive coordinator.

Trust issues were paramount during the third coach search of Arthur Blank’s six-year tenure as owner of the Falcons, presumably because the team’s most recent coach, Bobby Petrino, bolted for the University of Arkansas just 13 games into his first season.

"We referenced Mike for a two-week period of time, talking with coaches, players and scouts," Blank said. "We pressed them hard, but their answers were consistently good on the same points — trust, integrity, affinity for personnel and players like to play for him."

New general manager Thomas Dimitroff also lauded Smith for his "ability and interest in evaluating talent."

"That was a requisite trait," said Dimitroff, who took over as general manager on Jan. 13, "and I’m very excited about our ability to be on the same page."

Smith termed himself an "analytical" and "systematic" coach who prefers letting his players’ talents dictate his schemes. Philosophically though, he said some things never change.

"First and foremost, you have to be able to stop the run," Smith said."And offensively, you have to be able to run. If you can do that then you open up the ability to take shots downfield in the vertical passing game, and that’s very important."

In recent years, Smith’s defenses have been among the NFL’s best. He picked up a Super Bowl ring as the Ravens’ defensive line coach in 2000, and in Jacksonville he led a unit that ranked sixth in total defense in 2005 and second in total defense in 2006.

He’s never been a head coach at any level and said Thursday a head job in the NFL was "not something I went out pursued."

Dimitroff said Smith’s name first surfaced in talks with officials around the league.

"In the NFL we’re all tied in, team-to-team," Dimitroff said. "We made a list of things we wanted in a head coach — a football man, good integrity — and Mike’s name came up a number times from a number of teams."

Smith’s first order of business will be to construct a staff, a task he hopes to have completed in "four or five days." With the hiring of Van Gorder and the announcement that Thomas would remain with the team Thursday, that could be an attainable goal.

By the time Thursday’s press conference began, rumors that Van Gorder, who took recently joined Steve Spurrier’s staff at South Carolina, was on his way back to Atlanta were already swirling.

Smith confirmed that he was in "ongoing conversations" with the Gamecock defensive coordinator. Just a few hours later, the hiring was official.

Van Gorder served as the Falcons linebackers coach in 2007 and as linebackers coach in Jacksonville under Smith in 2005. He’s also the former defensive coordinator for the University of Georgia (2001-2004) and head coach of Georgia Southern (2006). He was hired by South Carolina in December.

Thomas, who assumed the role of interim head coach after Petrino’s departure, has been with the Falcons since 2002. He’s served as the secondary coach each year since then, and took on the additional role fo senior defensive assistant from 2004-2006.

Smith wasn’t ready to discuss player personnel issues yet, saying he’s just begun the process of evaluating the current roster.

"The first step," Dimitroff said, "is to sit down and talk system and what kind of players and what kind of traits we want at each position and communicate that to scouts so we’re making the right choices in free agency and the draft."

For Blank, there’s no need to rush.

"We feel like (Mike is) going to be our guy for a long time," Blank said."I want a long-term solution. I promised that to my wife, to the fans and most importantly to the players. It’s terribly disruptive and unfair to ask the players to work with a different staff each year, so I was as dedicated to a long-term solution as I could be.

"With Thomas and Mike we’ve got two young men with tremendous capacity to be the leaders of this franchise."



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