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Bowden secure in his shadow

Ex-state trooper Billy Smith, the most visible anonymous member of the FSU squad, has kept coaches safe for 35 years.


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- He's a fixture on the Florida State sideline, seemingly the first with a congratulatory handshake or pat on the back for coach Bobby Bowden.

After appearing in countless newspaper photographs and racking up incalculable television airtime, his face is as recognizable around town as almost anyone's in the Seminoles family.

But not many folks know Billy Smith by name.

Here's a hint:

Smith, 68, is the one in the neatly pressed Florida Highway Patrol uniform who has safely ushered Bowden -- and before him coaches Bill Peterson, Larry Jones and Darrell Mudra -- to and from the stadium for each game, home and away. This is Smith's 36th year on the job, a tenure that has enabled him to be a part, albeit an anonymous one, of the program's rise from national joke to national champion.

"It's amazing," Bowden said. "I just take him for granted because he's always been there. We wouldn't know what to do if he wasn't there."

Smith, who admits he wasn't a die-hard FSU fan when he started in 1964, has missed three games in that time -- one when he needed surgery, one when there was a death in his family and one six years ago when his daughter Terri married.

"During the fall, of course, my wife (Jeanette) is not the most thrilled person in the world about this because even for home games, we go up to Thomasville, Ga. (the night before), so we might as well be in New York City," Smith said. "You're still away from home."

Peterson first discussed the job with Smith over coffee and then convinced the governor it would be a public relations coup for the state and FSU to have a trooper travel with his team.

Until Smith retired as a major in 1985 after 32 years, he used his annual leave time to make his two-day trips with FSU 11 times each season. Other than expenses and a couple of championship rings, Smith hasn't received a penny for the job. It's a labor of love and a source of endless stories, good and bad, funny and scary.

After one road game many years ago, Smith and Bowden were waiting by the trooper car to leave when an elderly woman waved for Smith -- yes, Smith -- to come over. He assumed she needed directions out of the stadium parking lot.

"Oh, no, no," she told him. "I live here. I graduated from FSU in 1939, and I've never been back since. But I see you all on television every once in a while, and sometimes I can't understand which is my team because sometimes they wear different-colored uniforms. But when I see you with that highway patrol uniform, I know that's my team, and that's what I tell my friends."

Smith, ever the modest ambassador, thanked her for watching the team and said he hoped she enjoyed it. She did, except for one small thing.

"Every time I see you on television, there's a little man standing in front of you," she said. "I said, "Yes, ma'am. I've been noticing that.' She said, "It's so rude. You would think he would get out of the way. He's not a younger man, so surely his mother told him along the way to get out of the way.' I said, "Trust me, before this afternoon's over, I'll bring this to his attention.' "

Smith and Bowden laughed, and Smith might have forgotten about it were it not for what happened during the next game. Bowden turned to him at one point and said: "Billy, I'm not getting in your way now, am I?' "

After a game, Bowden is enveloped by reporters shouting questions and fans pleading for autographs. Bowden always has been uncommonly accommodating. That sounds like a nightmare for security, but rarely has the crowd posed a problem for Smith.

The 1995 game at Virginia is an exception.

When Warrick Dunn fell inches short of the end zone, the Seminoles lost their first Atlantic Coast Conference game, prompting Virginia fans to pour onto the field.

"Of course, coach Bowden wanted to go out and shake hands with the coach of Virginia (George Welsh), but when those people came storming out there, I told him, "Coach. We're not going,' " Smith said. "He said, "I need to see George.' I said, "I understand that, but do you see that mass of folks coming? We've got to get our butts out of here.' "

He then guided Bowden safely into the visitor's locker room.

"Bill was kind of afraid if you try to push your way through, you'd run into someone who's drunk or something and someone might do something," Bowden said. "I always leave that up to him."

Bowden, who has learned to count on Smith's attention to detail -- Smith brought a pillow so Bowden could nap on the drive home from Jacksonville late Saturday -- has literally put his life into his friend's capable hands.

In late October 1990, Bowden received a letter postmarked Pittsburgh in which the writer said he would kill the coach at the team's next road game. That was Nov. 3 at South Carolina.

Smith immediately was called. He told Bowden not to tell anyone about the threat and to do what he does best, and let him do his job. Smith notified law enforcement in South Carolina, and the highway patrol there not only searched fans as they entered the stadium but placed about 20 undercover officers on the sidelines.

"The players kept asking me, "What are all these guys doing in the way?' " Smith said. "In fact, some of the coaches asked me, "Can't these guys get out of the way?' They didn't know they were police officers. I said, "If they get to bothering you too much, just holler, but they've got something they need to do here, and they're doing it well.' "

After the game, a 41-10 FSU win, Smith told Bowden a trooper's car would be backed up to the locker room door. He wouldn't be mingling with fans, signing autographs or posing for pictures.

"I remember walking out, and it was just wall-to-wall troopers all the way to the car," Bowden said. "Two lines. It was so strange, but (Smith) really shielded me that day."

That guy who's always there in the background.

That guy, Billy Smith.

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