Since high school Sunil Smith has loved the game of football. It was Smith’s high school coaches who instilled that love of the gridiron in him, especially Harold Johnson, who coached Newton County football in 1991 and 1992, which were Smith’s sophomore and junior seasons.
Even now, Smith credits Johnson, along with his Newton County upbringing, as making a significant impact on who he has become as man and as a coach. So much so, when Smith was done working as a paraprofessional at Newton after six months, he returned to his collegiate roots in Salinas, California where he’d been an All-state defensive back at Hartnell Community College before earning a scholarship to Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
Smith, who was a Mass Communications major, planned to go to USC to study film and television. During his time there, Smith volunteered to coach the JV at Alisal High School, which is about four miles away from Hartnell.
While volunteering, the Alisal principal got wind of some of the degrees Smith had and asked him to interview for a job as a special education teacher. Smith used a former principal and Sunday school teacher as a reference, Louise Adams, a local celebrity in Covington.
Smith got the job and coached junior varsity his first year before he was promoted to coach defensive backs at the varsity level in just his second year in the program. After Smith’s second year the current head coach resigned and some of the assistants on staff told Smith he should go for the head coaching position.
“I’ll be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about applying as the head coach,” Smith said. “I was just telling guys who I know who had been committed to the school 15, 20 years. I knew outside guys would be interviewing, a lot of local people who are known, but I got pushed by a couple of assistant coaches. They’re like, ‘You should go for it.’ They said they saw the rapport I was having with the kids, the connection I was having with the kids. I moved up from JV defensive coordinator to varsity defensive backs within a year and I guess [they] saw something that I didn’t.”
In a field of 12 candidates Smith made the cut for the final two before being named head coach in 2003. Alisal was a school that was 95 percent Hispanic and known mostly for its futbol program and not its football program. Simply put, the football team just wasn’t good, ever.
“Football was, honestly at Alisal, it was a laughing stock,” Smith recalls. “The varsity was pretty much 0-33 when I got to be an assistant coach. They were fortunate enough to win a few games that year. In 40 years at the school, no playoff berth, no championships, anything.”
For decades the football program at Alisal was shrouded in darkness with a black cloud hovering above like a remote-controlled drone. Smith and his coaching staff became the light that shined through the dark cloud and saw Alisal succeed in football.
In Smith’s first season, he led the Trojans to their first conference championship and a playoff appearance.
The conference title signified a shift in culture change. Smith says he began to see Alisal merchandise worn throughout the city and people associated with the team were no longer ashamed of it, they embraced the team.
“The greatest accomplishment at Alisal was winning the conference championship in the first year because it came outta nowhere. That got everything rolling. To me that made that community believe that we can achieve at a high level, we can play with bigger teams, we can get out of Alisal,” Smith said, humbly. “After we won that championship I saw a gist of pride throughout the community with Alisal. It was more shameful at first.”
Although the Trojans claimed a conference championship in Smith’s inaugural season, it wasn’t a walk in the park. The school was under construction so they didn’t have a weight room and they were forced to practice at a different school than their own.
An even bigger obstacle for Smith was the fact that during his 10 years as head coach, the team consistently had a low number of players. Despite having a student body of around 2,500, the Trojans would field football teams with maybe 30 players against teams that fielded 50 and 60-plus.
“The kids at Alisal, they have a lot of pride. They play really hard. Tough, tough kids and they’ll do whatever you ask them to do,” Smith said proudly. “They’re humbled by life. A lot of them are from some tough areas. They come from some tough homes and some tough situations so football is that release for ‘em. It was always that release for ‘em. Some of them were looking for that structured period in their lives, looking for those father figures in their lives and it wasn’t just me. My assistant coaches were just as strong in building that rapport with the kids as I was. So we built a good family there for 10 years.”
Building a family is something Smith is familiar with, he learned it from Harold Johnson when he coached Smith at Newton. That wasn’t the only thing Smith picked up in his time at Newton, nor was it the only thing Smith brought with him to Alisal from Newton.
From the way he ran practices by practicing both varsity and junior varsity together to some of the chants that he got from being a Ram, Newton’s presence was strong in Monterey County.
“I had a staff who believed in what I wanted to do and the vision with the team and the program of what we could accomplish. I did things that were real unconventional there,” Smith said. “It did taper back to what my high school days were and how that structure was and how they practiced and some of the things they did. I took a lot of Newton County to Alisal High School.”
“I’m able to do what I do in California because of the way I was raised in Covington,” he added.
Smith continued to succeed throughout his tenure at Alisal, leading the Trojans to the playoffs five times and being within a half-point of making it every time the Trojans missed the playoffs. Smith was also named as a Top-10 high school coach in Monterey since 1979, but he knows none of it would’ve happened without his coaching staff, his players and a great administration to back him.
With all of Smith’s success came an offer from Hartnell College to come on as an assistant coach, and it was an offer that Smith couldn’t refuse.
“When the opportunity came to go to Hartnell, it was bittersweet, man. It was tough. It was the toughest decision I had to make in my life, but like I say, God is good,” Smith said.
“Every time I went to Hartnell I just had that good feeling of this is where I need to be right now.”
At a press conference in front of his mother, grandmother, wife (Tanisha Smith) and four daughters, Smith announced his resignation as the head coach at Alisal to become a wide receivers coach at Hartnell.
As the receivers coach in his first two years, Smith helped the team win conference championships both seasons with a 1-1 bowl record. This past year, Smith’s third with Hartnell, he was asked to coach the defensive line after another coach left the position, Smith obliged. The team would finish the season 10-1 and the defense finished second in the state while leading the state in sacks.
Smith still teaches at Alisal, he just gets afternoons and evenings off to coach at Hartnell. He says he’d do both if he could.
Guys didn’t believe what they could accomplish when Smith came to Alisal, but they know now how much of an impact he had. In his later years of coaching at Alisal, former players were studying law, some had went to fight for their country in the military and some were able to be hired by Smith to work on his staff.
“We were well accomplished, but we had high graduation rates as well with guys going off to college,” Smith said.
Sunil started playing football when he was six years old, with his older brother Marcus – who is the father of Alcovy’s Raven Smith, who recently signed her letter of intent to play softball at West Georgia. As Sunil got older he had to choose between basketball and football, it was Harold Johnson, who helped put him on the path toward football, but it was Smith’s father who saw Sunil’s future when he told him at a young age that he’d be a better coach than a player. At the time, Smith hated to hear that, but now? He knows it to be true.