April 4, 2011
IOWA CITY, Iowa — On Jan. 10, Robert Smith helped officiate a college football game in front of 79,000 people at the Tostitos BCS National Championship. On Sunday, he slipped on the black and white-striped shirt, black hat, black pants and black shoes once again — this time for an audience of about a dozen.
Smith, who worked as back judge during Auburn’s 22-19 title-clinching win over Oregon inside University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., nearly four months ago, helped head coach Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes during a scrimmage April 3 inside Kinnick Stadium.
“I love it here,” said Smith, an offensive weapon for the Hawkeyes from 1983-86. “Kirk was here when I played, so it’s always fun to get a chance to see him. We’re here getting ourselves back mentally ready to work football. I had great memories here. I got my degree, I met my wife here, I had a great career, so it’s always fun to come back to my alma mater.”
Smith was the first recruit from the state of Texas to follow Hayden Fry to Iowa City. He ended his career as the sixth-leading receiver in Iowa history (69 receptions, 1,438 yards, 19 touchdowns) and the school record-holder with 76 punt returns. Smith also carried the ball eight times and returned 36 kickoffs for an average of 20.9 yards per return.
With Smith on the field, the Hawkeyes compiled a record of 36-12-1 with invitations to the Gator, Freedom, Rose and Holiday bowls.
Smith also participated in track for Iowa and qualified for the NCAA indoor national championships in the 60-meter dash. He still has the fifth-best outdoor 100-meter time in school history.
“I love it here. My wife is from Waterloo, we met here in college as freshmen and ended up getting married. The next thing I know there’s a mortgage and two kids and if I had to do it all over again, I would. Iowa is a great place to live.”
Former Hawkeye WR
The 46-year old Smith earned a degree from the UI in communication studies with an emphasis in public relations. He resides in Waterloo with his wife and two children — a daughter, who is a junior at the University of Northern Iowa, and a son, who is a junior in high school. Smith has worked 23 years at Northern Iowa, most recently as executive director of the educational opportunity program, helping individuals return to receive a post-secondary education.
Officiating is becoming more than a hobby. After honing the craft in the Division III Iowa Conference, Smith moved up to the Big Ten, where he completed his ninth season in 2010. He is not allowed to work Hawkeye games.
“You apply to the leagues and you have to work your way up,” Smith said. “You’re graded all the time on mechanics, being in the correct position and getting (the calls) right.”
Smith was an all-state football and track sprinter from Spruce High School in Dallas. He turned down several in-state offers to play for Fry, a Texas legend.
“Coach Fry gave the first African-American kid (Jerry LeVias at Southern Methodist University) a scholarship in the Southwest Conference,” Smith said. “That meant a lot to my family and it meant a lot to the community people. He was from Texas, I was from Texas, and there was something unique about him that made me want to come and play for him. I’m glad I did.”
Smith was part of No. 1 Iowa’s 12-10 victory over No. 2 Michigan on Oct. 19, 1985. He ranks that experience right up there with officiating the national championship game. But working any Big Ten contest is significant, he said.
“They’re all big, but that one (against Michigan) with the hype behind it — that was it for the day in college football with everything at stake,” Smith said. “But in the Big Ten, all the games are huge. You never know at the end of the season what’s going to happen, so I’ve been fortunate to work a lot of great games as a college official. The national championship was great. It was for all the stakes, so it was fun. It was fun for me.”
Similar to being a player, Smith concedes that there are anxieties in the pregame for an official as well.
“It’s just like I’m getting ready to play the game,” Smith said. “The day I don’t have jitters is probably the time for me to get out of it. It’s excitement and I really look forward to it.”
While a Hawkeye, Smith played alongside another receiver Scott Helverson. His goal is to one-day work with Helverson, who in eight seasons as an NFL official has worked seven postseason games including Super Bowl XLII (Giants 17, Patriots 14) and Super Bowl XLV (Packers 31, Steelers 25).
“My aspiration is to go to the NFL,” Smith said. “Hopefully I’ll get an opportunity like Scott, who is doing real well there. If not, I’m having a great time working Division I college football.”
Smith remained in Iowa after graduation rather than return to the Lone Star State.
“I love it here,” he said. “My wife is from Waterloo, we met here in college as freshmen and ended up getting married. The next thing I know there’s a mortgage and two kids and if I had to do it all over again, I would. Iowa is a great place to live.”