Joey Clinkscales immediately grabbed his iPhone and began typing.
He had known Kathryn Smith since she was a St. John’s student interning with the Jets during their Hofstra days. He had watched her move up through the organization. And now his former administrative assistant was making history.
Latest NFL stories
“I texted her and said: ‘Is this you? Is this you I’m reading about?’ ” Clinkscales recalled with a laugh during a Thursday phone interview with Newsday. “And she wrote, ‘LOL.’
“She said yes, it’s been in the works for a couple days,” added Clinkscales, who spent more than a decade with the Jets and is now the Oakland Raiders’ director of player personnel.
On Wednesday, the Buffalo Bills officially announced Smith’s promotion to quality control-special teams coach — making the former Jets staffer the first female full-time coach in the NFL.
“It’s been pretty extraordinary, the reaction, and I realize that it’s groundbreaking,” Smith, 30, said via the Bills’ website. “I might be the first, but I think very quickly there are going to be many other women in the league . . . I don’t think I’ll be the only one for very long.”
Former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum admitted he, too, was caught off guard by the news. “I’m surprised but not shocked,” Tannenbaum, now the Dolphins’ executive vice president of football operations, said in a phone interview Friday. “She really was always interested in things, was always around, a lot of energy, a lot of questions.”
And she’s made her former bosses proud.
Said Clinkscales: “Anybody that could pull this off, it would be her.”
Smith’s journey has almost come full circle, geographically speaking. A native of DeWitt, New York, a suburb of Syracuse, Smith was a three-sport athlete in lacrosse, swimming and bowling at Christian Brothers Academy. As a sophomore, she began assisting her father, Robert, the football team’s statistician.
Smith was a sports management major at St. John’s from 2003-07 and a student manager for the men’s basketball team along with Matt Abdelmassih, now the team’s assistant coach.
“I am ecstatic for Kathryn to receive this opportunity,” Abdelmassih said in a statement released by the university. “She was always hard-working, goal-oriented, and she always wanted to be in sports in some capacity. This is a great day for women in sports. Kathryn is a pioneer.”
And after 12 seasons with the Jets, Smith is the talk of the town in Western New York and around the country, thanks to Bills coach Rex Ryan.
The former Jets coach hired Smith as his assistant in 2014 and she served in the same capacity with the Bills last season.
“I give Rex a lot of credit for doing it. It’s a move that’s never been made before,” Tannenbaum said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about winning, and Kathryn’s a smart, hard-working person.”
The San Antonio Spurs made headlines in August 2014 when coach Gregg Popovich hired former WNBA player Becky Hammon, making her the NBA’s first full-time paid female assistant coach. Last July, the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter as a training camp assistant coach, making her the first woman to hold an NFL coaching position of any kind. But Smith’s hiring is unlike any other the league has seen.
The enormity of the decision, however, was somewhat lost on Ryan. He said Friday he knew it was “a significant hire” but “never realized that . . . we were really breaking a barrier.”
That’s because Smith has always impressed with her work ethic.
“For me, I was just concerned getting somebody that can be successful in that role,” said Ryan, who promoted Smith after deciding not to retain assistant Michael Hamlin, a former NFL safety. “And having the experience that I have had with Kathryn, I really think she is going to do a great job in this role.”
The glass ceiling
Smith has kept a relatively low profile since her historic hiring. To date, she’s made one public appearance on Bills radio and most of her comments have come through the organization.
“Rex really puts a lot of faith in his staff and his people . . . but it was a bit surprising that he came to me with this,” said Smith, who began her career as a Jets game-day/special events intern in 2003 before becoming a college scouting intern for two seasons and later a player personnel assistant.
NFL players, celebrities and politicians have inundated social media with messages of encouragement for Smith, including Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “Another glass ceiling broken. Congratulations to Kathryn Smith and the @buffalobills!” Jarrett tweeted.
Though overwhelmed by the outpouring, Smith noted one message that stood out. “My top one is Barbie tweeting about my promotion,” she said. “That was pretty awesome. The Girl Scouts of America tweeted about it, which I thought was pretty cool, also.”
But along with that support has come plenty of misogynist rhetoric. After calling Smith’s promotion “absurd,” Cleveland sports talk radio host Kevin Kiley said on air Thursday, “She couldn’t possibly be qualified to the same level that a man could be qualified to [coach football].
“There’s no place for a woman in professional sports, in football coaching men,” he said on the “Kiley & Carman” show Thursday morning on 92.3 The Fan WKRK. “If you have 10 men playing on special teams, eight of them will be mumbling under their breath. It’s counterproductive. You’re setting her up to fail.”
Ryan chose not to address Kiley’s remarks, saying: “I don’t even know that a comment like that deserves a comment.”
Clinkscales and Tannenbaum, however, took issue with the assumption that coaches have to have played the game to be better qualified.
“Players want to get better,” Tannenbaum said. “They want to be coached. And they’re going to gravitate toward people regardless of their background or, in this case, if they’re male or female. It’s based on, can they get better?”
Clinkscales, a former University of Tennessee wide receiver and draft pick of the Steelers in 1987, highlighted Hall of Fame women’s college basketball coach Pat Summitt as proof.
“When she was coaching at Tennessee, I always said, if I were ever in a position to hire a coach, male or female, for my men’s basketball team, she’d be the one because she had everything it took,” he said. “When she spoke, people listened. So I think that [Kiley’s comment is] coming from someone who’s never been in the position to take coaching. That’s the way I’ll word it.”
The diligent worker
Smith has maintained that her goal is simply “to do whatever I can to help the team win.” And those who know her best believe she’s more than ready for this role. She’s quiet by nature but incredibly hard-working, they said. And above all else, she’s bright.
“I have left out of here and she has been the last one here,” Ryan said. “So every day since she got the promotion, I see her in there already working on her drawings and things like that. Working on next season’s opponents already.”
According to Ryan, Smith had never expressed a desire to pursue coaching “until I asked her if she would like this opportunity.” But her support system does not doubt she’s up to the challenge.
“If it comes down to intellect, then there’ll be no problems whatsoever because she’s certainly smart enough,” Clinkscales said. “The hire of Kathryn Smith tells me that she’s been diligent in what she’s done. She’s mentally tough enough to handle young guys. I would have no reason to think she couldn’t get the job done, whatever they ask of her.”
Said Tannenbaum: “You wish good things to good people. And this is just a great example of it.”