Lance Smith arrived at LSU amidst much fanfare as a prep All American out of Kannapolis, North Carolina.
"Miami, UCLA, North Carolina State, among hundreds of others (offered). I didn't know a lot about LSU," recalled the 1984 All American. "What sold me on the recruiting trip was the Tulane game (1980 at Tiger Stadium, Tigers won 24-7). It was raining and storming. The way (LSU) played. When I came back to North Carolina I told my friend Ethan that I was going to LSU, but don't tell anyone."
Fellow high school teammate Ethan Horton, who would not only go onto play for North Carolina, but would eventually become a number one draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Darrell Moody, then the running backs coach at LSU, was Lance's recruiter.
Smith arrived in Tigertown in 1981 with a solid recruiting class. "We had Walden Cager, Jeffery Dale, Gregg Dubroc, Herman Fontenot, Eric Martin, Clay Parker, Donald Polk, Earl Curtis and Juan Betanzos," Smith said. "Me and Eric Martin were best friends."
It didn't take long for the hulking future All-SEC freshman to find a spot on the offensive line. The early season presented some stiff challenges, with a home opener against forth-ranked Alabama before a road test at fifth rated Notre Dame. "I played some against Alabama, but my first start was at Notre Dame. I was excited about playing in the SEC," Lance stated about first first two outings, losses for the Tigers. "If you can play in the SEC, you can play anywhere."
The LSU offensive line was solid with Smith and Clint Berry manning the tackle spots, Mike Gambrell at center, David Koch at a guard spot.
"We had a good group. We had solid coaching. Buddy Nix was the offensive line coach, Darrell Moody coached the backs, Pete Jenkins handled the defensive line, Mack Brown was the offensive coordinator and Jerry Stovall the head coach."
Smith's four-year career with the purple and gold was a roller coaster ride. The 1981 season produced just a 3-7-1 record but was followed by an 8-3-1 finish in '82, good enough for a spot in the Orange Bowl against 11th-ranked Nebraska.
The game that solidified the bowl appearance was a 55-21 thrashing of the Florida State Seminoles at Tiger Stadium on November 20, 1982. The celebrating by the Tiger faithful began long before the team landed in Miami. "They sold all of the oranges in Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi and Alabama," Smith laughed. "The stadium was full of oranges. We jumped out to a 21-0 lead. It was exciting. The fans were great."
The oranges became missiles flying out of the stands onto the field halfway into the 4th quarter.
The Tigers dropped the Orange Bowl game to the Cornhuskers, 21-20, after holding a 17-3 lead in the 3rd quarter.
Following a 4-7 season in 1983, head coach Jerry Stovall was dismissed and replaced by Bill Arnsparger, whoarrived as a legendary NFL defensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins. He was a no-nonsense guy. "(Arnsparger) called me into his office and told me that the offensive line was overweight," Lance said. "We were giving up sacks. He told me that I don't have to be big to play in the NFL."
'Big Daddy' listened and soon dropped 52 pounds, going from 320 to 268.
Smith also truly enjoyed the college game and feels like it is unique as is. A playoff would not be a positive move in his eyes. "No. You jeopardize the players. Too many games. Health will play into it. You're not looking out for the kids. I don't think that playoffs will solve it. If you're a senior and going into the NFL, you've got to worry about injuries."
During his days as a Tiger, Smith played with some outstanding teammates such as Alan Risher, Albert Richardson, Liffort Hobley, Michael Brooks, Shawn Burks, Jeffery Dale, James Britt, Eric Martin and Dalton Hilliard.
Risher was a take-charge, cerebral quarterback who set the table with the offense and in the huddle. "We were playing Alabama. Herman Fontenot enters the huddle to relay a play call from the sideline. We needed a first down desperately. Alan told Eric Martin 'get your @#* open.'" LSU prevailed 20-10.
Dalton Hilliard was a three-time All SEC performer and later a Pro Bowler with the New Orleans Saints. While in the NFL, Hilliard was described by former 49ers All Pro safety Ronnie Lott as a player who delivered the hardest hit that he ever took.
Throughout his college days and 11-year NFL career, Lance Smith felt that Hilliard was the best that he ever saw. "We were playing Alabama and ran a toss sweep. I kicked out. There was a safety (All American Jeremiah Castille) that came up to make the tackle. Castille broke down (in a good tackling position). Dalton never broke stride; he ran right over him. Castille hit Dalton on his thigh and he just kept going."
Smith blocked for some outstanding NFL runners, too. Rodney Hampton (Giants), Otis Anderson (Cardinals), Stump Mitchell (Cardinals and current Southern University head coach) were all superb, but Smith felt that his former college teammate was in a class by himself. "(Dalton Hilliard) was the best player that I ever blocked for. He never said a word; he just did what he was supposed to do. Offensive linemen love guys that run between the tackles."
Following his career at LSU, where he was a 1st-team All-American in 1984 and was twice named to the All-SEC team, Smith was selected in the 3rd round of the '85 NFL draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. It didn't take long for him to realize that he wasn't in college anymore. "When I left, money took the fun out of (football). It was a business. The guy making the money plays; not the best guy always plays."
Jim Hanifan was the head coach of the Cardinals during Lance's rookie campaign before Gene Stallings took over the reigns. "Neil Lomax (quarterback) hurt his hip in my rookie season," he said. "We had great skill guys (Anderson, Mitchell and wideout Roy Green) but if you don't have a triggerman, you're in trouble. We went through a lot of quaterbacks in 1985."
Stallings' four-year tenure was a mixed bag, including a move out of St. Louis to Sun Devil Stadium in the Arizona desert in 1988. "Gene Stallings was a good man," Lance reflected in defending the legendary college coach's work with the Cardinals. "He wanted to draft defensive tackle Jerome Brown (out of Miami). We had the 3rd pick in the first round of the 1987 draft. The ownership overruled him and picked quarterback Kelly Stoufer."
Lance moved form his familiar OT spot inside to OG for the 1988 season. "It was easy; you just go against big guys." Big Daddy faced some staunch competition week in and week out , like Reggie White and Jerome Brown from the Eagles and Dave Butz and Dexter Manley from the Redskins.
Joe Bugel replaced Gene Stallings in 1990. The franchise, under the direction of GM and former Cardinals Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson, started to draft well. They added wide receiver Ricky Proehl, defensive tackle Eric Swann, cornerback Aeneas Williams, running back Larry Centers and running back Garrison Hearst during the first few seasons of the regime. But Smith was ready for a new challenge.
After seven seasons with the Cardinals, free agency arrived in 1993 and Smith seized the opportunity. "It was time to go," he lamented. "I had previously signed one year contracts for each of the final 4 seasons with the Cardinals." He signed with the New York Giants and would remain there for the final three years of his career.
Smith's first season in the Big Apple was a bounce of the ball or so away from a special season, in spite of going 9-7 in '94 under head coach Dan Reeves. The G-Men lost to the Saints (27-22), the Steelers (10-6), the Lions (28-25) and the Cardinals (10-9) in heartbreaking fashion.
"I had great times with the Giants. They're a great organization. If you want a model organization, the Giants are the blueprint. I keep up with former teammates like (offensive tackle) Jumbo Elliott, a Hall of Famer. Rodney Hampton and I talk everyday. Mike Strahan is a good guy."
Character guys, ones who help form winning teams, are not uncommon for the Giants. "They do extensive background checks on their players," Smith noted.
In Super Bowl XLIII, the Cardinals made their very first Super Bowl appearance and remembered their former players who helped pave the way. Lance enjoyed that experience in Tampa signing autographs. "Since Michael Bidwell has taken over the team (from his dad, Bill Bidwell), the Arizona Cardinals are putting a lot of time into bringing the old players back."
Today, Lance Smith lives with his wife, Meko and three sons in Charlotte, North Carolina. Quentin is 26 years old and a graduate of Grambling State. Middle son Justin is a senior starter at defensive tackle for the Ole Miss Rebels while youngest boy Lanson is 14.
Injuries have slowed Justin's progress, but coaches feel like he possesses All-SEC potential. He signed with the Rebels spurning offers from Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Boston College and North Carolina. He did not receive an offer from his dad's beloved Tigers.
But the snub of his son had no negative effect on Lance, who remembers his days at LSU as being very special. He has perhaps the fondest recollection of the rabid support he saw during days in Baton Rouge.
"Those were die-hard fans. You don't see fans like that in the NFL."
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