Kathryn Smith’s story deserved the Sports Illustrated cover treatment.
As the first female full-time assistant coach in NFL history, she shattered a monumental glass ceiling. But after an initial wave of national media attention when Smith was hired in January, she has done her job in relative anonymity this season – which is exactly how she’d like it.
“I recognize (the history), but all year, it wasn’t my focus from the beginning,” Smith said this week. “We have one more game to play, so we’re focused on the Jets. Maybe after this season I’ll take some time to think about it, but right now, as all year, it’s not really something I’ve thought about or has been my focus.”
Smith appreciates the significance of her story, but the interest it generated caught her off guard.
“The whole experience was nice, but it was overwhelming,” she said. “To hear from a lot of people around the league that I had worked with – being in the league for a number of years, you end up knowing people on a lot of teams – so I think to hear from those people, your peers, and for them to reach out in a positive way, has been neat.”
Earlier this season, as Smith took the field in Seattle before the Bills’ Monday night game with the Seahawks, a heckler in the crowd was caught on video yelling, “Hey waitress! Waitress! Waitress! Can I have a Pepsi, please? Waitress!”
Condemnation was swift, but Smith said she never heard the taunts.
“I didn’t even really realize that was happening at the time. I mean, you’re out there, you’re not paying attention to the fans,” she said. “You don’t hear them. They’re yelling at everybody. I guess in that situation they were yelling specifically at me, but it’s not like you hear that. You hear everybody yelling. You can’t focus on that. You don’t focus on that. It became a story, but as far as I was concerned, it really wasn’t anything.”
That neatly summarizes how Smith approaches her job – with a dogged determination. While being a trailblazer for other women who hope to follow in her footsteps is important, it was not the reason she took the job. When Smith was hired, co-owner Kim Pegula issued a statement that read in part: “While we understand the significance of this announcement, it’s important to understand that Kathryn earned this position because she has shown she is qualified, dedicated and puts in the work needed for this role.”
“It was great to hear from her, great to get that support, but it’s true – internally, that was our approach and our thought process,” Smith said. “It really wasn’t until it blew up externally that we kind of went, ‘Oh, wow, this is more than we were thinking it was.’
“Terry and Kim both have been extremely supportive and it was nice to hear from them, too, that this is about your work and your job and what you’ve done. Because that’s how I was approaching it. That’s how we were approaching it as a team. So to hear that from them, we’re all on the same page as far as ‘this is about doing a good job,’ and being rewarded for your hard work.”
As the quality control coach for special teams, that work includes breaking down film of the Bills’ previous game, as well as the team’s next opponent. She also gets the game plan ready for meetings, and during practice assists coordinator Danny Crossman.
“When I first got here,” rookie cornerback Kevon Seymour said, “I was like, ‘OK, she’s probably learning just like us.’ But she was on her stuff. If you asked her a question, she knows. But if she doesn’t, she won’t tell you like she knows, she’ll go and ask and make sure you know the right thing.”
“She’s a legit coach,” safety and gunner Jonathan Meeks said. “She’s just there when you need to ask questions. She’s on top of it. She takes her job very seriously, you can tell.”
Smith said that her first season of on-field work has been a learning experience.
“I learned a ton from Danny, a ton from Eric Smith, our other special teams coach,” she said. “Just to learn how they see things, how they coach things, what their thought process is, what their philosophies are. It’s been really great to … pick their brain about stuff. They’ve been a tremendous asset.”
Players interviewed about Smith said that it took some getting used to having a female coach.
“At first when you come in, you’re like, ‘Oh, you got a female coach.’ But then, she’s just another coach,” Seymour said. “She’s up with us early in the morning. During camp, she was there every day, even when she had to be up before us – she’s got to be in meetings and stuff – so she already knows the game plan and all that.”
“Just another coach” is exactly what Smith was hoping to become.
“It’s been great,” she said of doing more on-field work. “I really enjoyed it. Working with the guys, and other coaches, that whole experience has been fantastic.”
Seymour gave an example of that on-field coaching.
“Being on punt team, the gunners, we have rules,” he said. “Like it depends on where you’re kicking the ball from, are we in the minus territory, are we behind the 50 or in front of the 50, she can tell you, ‘you have to play this read or you have to get to the goal line.’ She knows. Like, for example, if it was a rookie or a new player to come in, she can teach him the rules as a gunner on punt team. She knows all of that.”
Bills tight end Logan Thomas previously played for the Arizona Cardinals when they hired Jen Welter to serve as inside linebackers coach during training camp in 2015.
“Them two are nothing alike,” Thomas joked. “Kathryn’s a little more quiet, not as flamboyant, got great knowledge. Any time you have a question, she has the answer.
“She just gets her work done and goes about it just like anybody else would. She wants to be treated just like one of the guys.”
Most players described Smith as quiet, “but if you get to know her personality, she’s funny,” Meeks said. “She isn’t going to, like, crack a joke in the middle of the room, but she’ll say something sly. She’s sneaky funny.”
Meeks’ favorite story involving Smith took place during a special teams meeting one week. He was talking with special teams assistant Eric Smith about a problem Crossman probably had to answer.
“We were in the position room and we were talking about something Smitty was saying, pretty much in regards to Danny,” Meeks said. “So I was like, ‘I have to go over your head to get permission to do that?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, pretty much,’ talking about Danny. And I went, ‘So Kathryn…’ And we all bust out laughing. She was all for it, like, ‘Thank you, yes you can do it.’ ”
Smith started in the NFL with the New York Jets in 2003 as a game-day/special events intern and steadily rose up the ranks. She became a college scouting intern in 2005 and a player personnel assistant in 2007 before becoming head coach Rex Ryan’s assistant in 2014. Smith’s future with the Bills, like the rest of the coaching staff, is uncertain after Ryan was fired this week. After working together for six years in New York before coming to Buffalo, Smith understandably was disappointed for Ryan.
“Everybody in this business is aware, you never know what’s going to happen from year to year,” she said. “It’s tough in the sense, I came in with Rex, worked with Rex for a long time. He’s a great person to work for, but when you’re in this business, you never know at the end of the year what could change, what could happen, where you might be next year. Unfortunately, that is what it is.”
Despite that, her “next day, next game” approach hasn’t changed.
“Right now it’s still just the Jets,” she said. “Next week, I’m sure we’ll have some end-of-season meetings and that kind of stuff. I just want to continue to learn and continue to build on this experience and go from there.
“Hopefully, we could have won a few more games, but aside from that, everything went well. Having the experience, one year under my belt, any time you do something new, you learn as you go. Just to have that year behind me has been great – except that you’d like to win a few more games. It was a good year, good experience, and everything went pretty well for me.”