A few weeks before the 1979 Gator Bowl, Ralph Wilson asked his daughter, the late Linda Bogdan, to do him a favor. The Buffalo Bills owner was interested in several potential pro players who would be competing in the game, and he wanted her to evaluate them. She had never played the sport, unless you counted her participation in family touch football games while growing up in suburban Detroit. But her lack of experience didn’t bother her father. He trusted her football judgment. He felt she had developed a keen eye for talent.
“I had been watching the Bills play since the beginning of time,” Bogdan joked to me in a 1986 interview. “So, I didn’t go into it totally unprepared.”
She wound up filing a glowing report on a speedy, sure-handed receiver from Clemson University named Jerry Butler. Four months later, the Bills drafted Butler in the first round, and he justified her faith in him, earning AFC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
A scout was born. And another notch was scored for gender equality in a sport where macho men have long ruled.
Fast-forward to two Wednesdays ago when the Bills helped shatter another thick glass ceiling with the announcement that Kathryn Smith would become the first full-time female assistant coach in NFL history.
Yes, there were some Neanderthals out there who trashed the move, but I didn’t pay them much heed. Heck, they’re probably in favor of repealing the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. Happily, the response to Smith’s hiring has been overwhelmingly positive. With 12 years of NFL experience, including the past seven assisting head coach Rex Ryan, she earned the right to become a quality control coach for the Bills special teams.
As readers of this space know, I’ve occasionally been critical of Rex’s moves, but I can’t applaud him enough for this promotion. It was a good decision, one that I believe will open doors for many other women who aspire to coach men’s teams professionally, collegiately and scholastically.
By all accounts, Smith is an indefatigable worker with a sharp football mind honed from years of breaking down film, studying tendencies, and picking the brains of coaches and players. Some of her critics believe she isn’t qualified because she never played the game, but that’s such a lame excuse, similar to those used to deny women opportunities in so many fields for so many decades. The Bills aren’t asking her to play special teams; they’re asking her to coach them. As long as the 30-year-old is able to impart knowledge that will enable players and the team to succeed, she’ll succeed. And that’s how she should be judged—just like her male counterparts who played the game.
Interestingly, many of the greatest coaches in football history never played the sport beyond college. Some never played beyond high school. Everybody has to start somewhere, then climb the rungs of the ladder. Did playing the game give male coaches an advantage and a perspective Smith doesn’t have? Sure. But it shouldn’t be a prerequisite. Fortunately, Smith already has received endorsements from the people who matter most—Ryan, Bills owner Kim Pegula and several players, including Pro Bowl guard Richie Incognito, who tweeted his congratulations, saying, “I know you will do a great job!”
Clearly, there will be gender-related challenges along the way, but hopefully, she’ll meet less resistance than did Bogdan. In a time when women enjoyed fewer opportunities, she had to deal with sexism, as well as charges of nepotism. Bogdan understood that being the boss’ daughter afforded her an opportunity she otherwise might not have had. “It has enabled me to get my foot in the door,” she said. “And because I’m the owner’s daughter, I know people at least have to listen to my opinion.”
She also realized that once she got her foot in the door, she needed to prove she belonged in a room full of male skeptics. Like Smith, a three-sport athlete at Syracuse’s Christian Brothers Academy, Bogdan may not have had the unique perspective derived from playing football, but her background as a ranked tennis player in Florida came in handy when assessing the athleticism and competitiveness of potential Bills.
John Butler, the late Buffalo scouting director and general manager, went from doubter to strong supporter, but he had to be won over. “I admit I was skeptical about her ability to do the job at first,” Butler told me in 1988, two years after Bogdan had become a part-time scout. “To her advantage, she’s been around football most of her life. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. She’s shown me she knows exactly what we are looking for in a player.”
One of Bogdan’s diamond-in-the-rough discoveries occurred in 1988 when she lobbied hard for the Bills to draft Carlton Bailey in the ninth round. Bailey played nose tackle at North Carolina, but Bogdan envisioned him as a linebacker in the pros. She hit the bull’s eye with her projection. Bailey spent five seasons, including two as a starter, with the Bills and made one of the most memorable interceptions in franchise history in a 10-7 victory against the John Elway-led Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game in 1992.
At Butler’s recommendation, Bogdan eventually was promoted to assistant director of college and pro scouting, a position she held until her death from breast cancer in 2009, just four months before her father’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Now, a generation later, it is Smith’s turn to blaze a trail. But like Bogdan before her, she’s not concentrating on being a pioneer. She just loves the game and is incredibly grateful for this opportunity. The trail she hopes to blaze is the one leading to the end of Buffalo’s 16-year playoff famine.
Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak talks sports weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 95.7 ESPN, AM 950 or on-line at www.espnrochester.com.
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