Alex Smith's lost legacy: Leading the team that 'changed college football'

Pete Thamel
·8-min read

In the fall of 2003, a Utah quarterback named Brett Elliott dove for the pylon in the final seconds of a September game at Texas A&M. If he crossed over the goal line, the Utes, led by first-year coach Urban Meyer, would force overtime and potentially land a breakthrough victory.

Instead, Elliott took a monster hit, fumbled and broke his wrist. He lost the game, his starting job and never took another Division I snap. Such began the career of Alex Smith, as no one could have predicted that moment would indelibly alter Utah football and college football in general for the next generation and beyond.

Prior to making his first start, Smith was best known for handing the ball off to Reggie Bush at Helix High School. Upon his retirement from the NFL this week, Smith can be looked back upon as one of the most significant college football players of this generation.

Was he one of the very best players the past two decades? Probably not, as names like Tebow, Newton and Burrow would line up ahead of him. Should he be remembered as one of the most important? Most definitely. “I think that 2004 Utah team changed college football,” said Florida coach Dan Mullen, who was Smith’s quarterback coach. “Alex was a major part of that.”

During his two years starting at Utah, Smith went 21-1 as a starter, led the Utes to an undefeated 2004 season and finished fourth in the Heisman race behind 2004 winner Matt Leinart.

But what Smith accomplished at Utah transcended his vast imprint on the record book there. He became the face of a new era of offense for the sport, helped Utah shine so brightly in the Mountain West it become a candidate for the Pac-12 and piloted the Utes to become the sport’s first BCS buster. Back when the Bowl Championship Series was a thing and a team from outside the power conferences busting it felt nearly impossible. 

Utah quarterback Alex Smith (11) celebrates with head coach Urban Meyer (R) after defeating the University of Pittsburgh 35-7 in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. Utah finished the season 12-0. (REUTERS/Jeff Topping)
Utah quarterback Alex Smith (11) celebrates with head coach Urban Meyer (R) after defeating the University of Pittsburgh 35-7 in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. Utah finished the season 12-0. (REUTERS/Jeff Topping)

In essentially a two-year playing career, Smith helped change the way football was fundamentally played, elevated his university to the cusp of a new paradigm and helped author a historic first-time accomplishment in the sport. Then he skipped town to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, opening the door for other spread quarterbacks. That’s quite a vast legacy tucked into three years on campus.

“He was so big to that team to really put us in a direction of becoming a nationally ranked and known program,” former Utah athletic director Chris Hill said by phone on Monday night. “I think it was a tremendous push for us to go from one level to the next. He really helped turn the corner for us, along with the other players and Coach Meyer.”

Smith didn’t exactly arrive at Utah portending great expectations. He was so skinny in high school that his father, Doug Smith, encouraged him to run cross country. His mother, Pam, pushed hard for him to attend an Ivy League school.

Smith had two Division I scholarship offers. And one deserved an asterisk. The first came from his uncle, John L. Smith, at Louisville. The second from Ron McBride at Utah. Forgive all the coaches who overlooked Smith, as only one member of the Helix High School backfield had a viral highlight tape

When Smith played at Helix, if you’d told anyone in San Diego that he’d end up as the No. 1 NFL draft pick, they’d have accused you of spending too many afternoons at Bill Walton’s house.

Even Smith’s rise at Utah came with some serendipity. When the Utes hired the hard-charging Meyer from Bowling Green in 2003, he never could have forecast this trajectory. Meyer didn’t start him until he needed to.

In his first start, Smith out-dueled an unknown Cal quarterback named Aaron Rodgers, who supplanted the Cal starter after two series. Utah’s 31-24 win is remembered as a turning point for the program. “That was the first sellout at Rice-Eccles, but we gave away 20,000 tickets just to get people in that stadium,” Meyer said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a gamble. If we stink, they’ll never come back.’”

Alex Smith of Utah gets away from Joe Clermond of Pittsburgh in the second quarter of the Tostito's Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2005. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Alex Smith of Utah gets away from Joe Clermond of Pittsburgh in the second quarter of the Tostito's Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2005. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Two weeks later, Smith out-dueled Oregon’s Kellen Clemens — a much bigger deal at the time than outshining Rodgers — by throwing for 340 yards in a 17-13 Utes win. That led to Utah’s first national ranking in seven seasons a few weeks later and sent Smith’s trajectory toward stardom.

This all played out amid the spread offense that Meyer and Mullen were helping usher to the forefront of college football. There were certainly other spread innovators, with Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia, Bobby Petrino at Louisville, Northwestern offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and Joe Tiller at Purdue among the many tinkerers. What Meyer and Mullen did so effectively was add zone reads, shovel passes and made the quarterback run game a defiant part of an offense that could also be pass happy.

How well did things work in 2004? Utah blitzed its way through the schedule, beating BCS foes Texas A&M, Arizona and UNC by an average of three touchdowns. No Mountain West team played Utah closer than two touchdowns, and Utah embarrassed Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, 35-7. They were undefeated and, really, untested.

“It’d be interesting if that happened today,” Mullen said. “The average halftime score of that team was 31-7, and we played four BCS teams. Should that team have been in the discussion to play for the national title? In today’s world, it would have been a different deal.”

Smith had plenty of high-end running mates — speedy receivers Paris Warren and Steve Savoy, along with capable tailback Marty Johnson. (Future NFL star Eric Weddle, current Utes defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and longtime NFL DT Sione Po'uha anchored a strong defense.)

But Smith stirred the drink, as his single-season school records for TD passes (32), TDs accounted for (42) and career passing efficiency (164.42) all still stand. Utah often led by so much that he rarely played in the fourth quarter. “He was the first great spread quarterback,” Meyer told Yahoo Sports. “Or at least one of the first ones.”

In many ways, the offense was the biggest star. No other Utah offensive player was picked in the first five rounds of the NFL draft the next three years. The best evidence for just how far ahead the offense was came at Bowling Green in 2004, where Meyer’s system stayed with coach Gregg Brandon and a quarterback named Omar Jacobs had 41 touchdown passes and four interceptions for a 9-3 team.

Meyer got the Florida job in the winter of 2004, and Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels were in his office a few months later spending hours going over the film. McDaniels went back to spend more time with Mullen. The Patriots swiped a bunch of those no-back concepts and utilized them frequently, including in that undefeated 2007 regular season.

In that era before mock drafts became an industry, buzz of Smith being the No. 1 pick didn’t arrive until well after the season. “That was a little beyond my comprehension,” Meyer said. “It was almost surreal.”

Utah quarterback Alex Smith (11) eludes the tackle by UNLVs Charles Ealy (20) enroute to a 70 yard touchdown during the first quarter Saturday, Oct. 23, 2004 at Rice - Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Ken Levine/Getty Images)
Utah quarterback Alex Smith (11) eludes the tackle by UNLVs Charles Ealy (20) enroute to a 70 yard touchdown during the first quarter Saturday, Oct. 23, 2004 at Rice - Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Ken Levine/Getty Images)

Smith never found the same type of linear success in the NFL that he did in college. He was a very good quarterback for 16 seasons, but there will be no Hall of Fame discussions or number retirements. His grit in coming back from a devastating leg injury last year in Washington last season will be his final legacy. He went 99-67-1, threw 199 touchdowns and passed for 35,650 yards.

His college legacy resonates deeper. Utah accepted a Pac-12 bid six years later, as coach Kyle Whittingham retained Meyer’s momentum and Smith’s backup, Eagles QB coach Brian Johnson, authored a 13-0 season in 2008 that culminated with a blowout of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Smith got Utah to the table, and that 2008 team allowed them to stand on it. “Alex put us on the map,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham told Yahoo Sports.

The spread offense has kept spreading, too, where it’s now become football convention. Mullen credits Smith for ushering spread quarterbacks into the NFL, as he said 20 years ago a pocket passer like current Florida draft prospect Kyle Trask would have been the No. 1 pick. Now there’s a premium on mobility, and Trask is stigmatized for not being mobile enough. “Back then it was taboo,” Mullen said of mobile quarterbacks. “Now it’s all anyone wants.”

Smith’s appreciation for his alma mater has been reciprocated. He gave the lead gift for a weight room in 2007 that’s known as the Alex Smith Strength and Conditioning Facility. He spoke at graduation in 2014 after getting an honorary doctorate from the school. (Smith earned his undergraduate degree in just two years, as he arrived as a principal’s son with many AP credits.)

He’ll enter the Utah Athletics Hall of Fame this fall, and his return will be an event in Salt Lake City. His legacy will be as simple as it is vast — in less than two decades, he helped change everything.

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