Jim Zorn was a long-shot white kid from suburban Los Angeles who had been cut in his first try to make an NFL roster. Sherman Smith was a black kid from gritty Youngstown, Ohio, who was sure to make the team as a second-round draft pick.
Zorn beat the odds and became the starting quarterback for the expansion Seattle Seahawks in 1976, and Smith, a quarterback at Miami of Ohio, became his No. 1 running back. In that less color-blind world, Zorn and Smith became close friends. So close that 12 years after they were last teammates they promised each other that whoever was the first to become a head coach would hire the other as offensive coordinator.
“I have tremendous admiration for Sherman,” Zorn said. “He’s a man of solid character. You want to be like him because of the way he lives, the way he approaches people. Sherman’s walk aligns with his talk.”
Their mutual vow was fulfilled in February. After Zorn, who was Seattle’s quarterbacks coach, was named coach of the Washington Redskins, he tabbed Smith, Tennessee’s assistant head coach, to be his offensive coordinator. In the same week, Zorn lured Stump Mitchell, his colleague the past seven seasons with the Seahawks, to the Redskins.
“Jim and I had a great relationship when were playing in Seattle,” Smith said. “He would have a cookout at his house, and we would be there. His wife [Joy] and my wife [Sharon] are very good friends. Jim and I were teammates and real good friends, and we just maintained that communication throughout the years. I respected the type of player that he was, the type of person that he is, the type of coach that he demonstrated that he was.”
Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent also bonded immediately with Zorn. They have maintained that tight friendship over the past three decades. Largent, now president and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, attended Zorn’s introductory press conference with Washington as well as the Redskins’ minicamp.
“It’s unusual, but it’s genuine,” Largent said of Zorn and Smith’s longstanding friendship. “Sherman and Jim are both such quality guys. We shared a love for football, a love for life and a common faith. It really comes down to who Jim is and who Sherman is. Sherman’s a very smart guy. He could have done anything, but he chose to be a coach.”
As did Zorn. Each went into coaching when his playing days were history: Zorn at Boise State, Smith at Redmond (Wash.) Junior High School. Neither has ever done anything else.
“Jim was a good leader, a good player,” Smith said. “He was detail-oriented just like he is now as a head coach. He was a competitor. He demands a lot of himself and from the people around him. That’s why he was successful as a quarterback and he’ll be the same way as a coach. We would spend time at the combine or the Senior Bowl, and we would talk a lot. You could tell he was ready to be a head coach. I’ve been around a lot of guys who [became] head coaches, and I didn’t think they were half as sharp as Jim.”
Other than incumbent special teams coach Danny Smith, with whom he worked in Detroit, and offensive assistant Chris Meidt, who worked under him at the University of Minnesota, the rest of Zorn’s staff is made up of relative strangers. The 55-year-old coach is not only a newcomer to his title but also to his organization and to the East Coast. So the presence of longtime friends Smith and Mitchell on his staff is quite welcome.
“I’m blessed to have Stump because he knows all the little nuances in this offense,” Zorn said. “If I’m not in a meeting room, he can say, ‘We run it like this.’ Stump takes the game very seriously. He’s very patient. He gets the respect of the players. We work well together. I don’t worry about what the running backs are doing.”
While Mitchell isn’t as close to Zorn as Smith has been, their relationship still was strong enough for him to leave the only NFL team for which he had coached. And Mitchell said the bond between Zorn and Smith doesn’t surprise him.
“You may say something, but do you stick to that all those years later?” Mitchell said. “Jim doesn’t see color. The guys will enjoy the skipper they have now. I’ve seen the way Jim cares about people. He’s helped some guys who wouldn’t be in this league had he not been concerned about them as individuals. He treats his players like men. He’s truthful with them. He treats everybody with respect. He wants the players to respect him as their coach, but he also wants to be their friend.”
While Smith has yet to work a game alongside Zorn, Mitchell and his boss were colleagues through nine playoff games, including Super Bowl XL.
“I pretty much know what Jim wants to do,” Mitchell said. “He’s got so much going on in terms of being the head guy and operating the entire team. If he tends to leave anything out offensively, I try to remind him what we did in Seattle. He may not want to do it, but I’ll bring it up in case he does. Jim’s knowledge of the game is great. Some people say he can’t be a head coach because he’s never called plays. He never called plays, but he always had great ideas that he gave to coach [Mike] Holmgren. I pretty much know how Jim thinks and what he wants to done. My goal is to carry out what he wants done.”
Notes- Cornerback Shawn Springs remained absent Monday from organized team activities, which end Thursday. Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and running back Clinton Portis were excused for personal reasons. …
In an attempt to build team unity, the Redskins took four buses to a special Monday afternoon screening of the new Will Smith film, “Hancock,” courtesy of Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s Hollywood connections. …
The Redskins re-signed linebacker Rian Wallace and defensive end Dorian Smith and waived cornerback Eddie Jackson and linebacker Bryan Wilson. None has played a snap for Washington.