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Emotional homecoming week for Smith

Since he took the job that brought him back to Penn State last week, Terry Smith's phone has not stopped ringing.

Smith, who played in three professional leagues as a receiver, will now coach the cornerbacks.

Former teammates like Sam Gash, Keith Goganious, Darren Perry, O.J. McDuffie and Brian O'Neal have called or texted to congratulate the former Nittany Lion wide receiver on his new position, that of cornerbacks coach and defensive recruiting coordinator on James Franklin's staff.

"They're all excited and just happy, especially that there's a Penn Stater on staff and gives some connection to the past of Penn State," Smith said.

It was a phone call a few days before that, though, that has made it a bittersweet month for Smith.

That was the call that informed him that Curtis Bray, the defensive line coach at Iowa State and a childhood friend of Smith's, had died at age 43 after suffering a pulmonary embolism.

Bray and Smith played junior high football and basketball together while growing up in Monroeville, Pa., then helped lead Gateway High School to Class AAAA WPIAL championships in 1985 and 1986.

"We won hundreds of games together. were in the trenches where we fought and cried and bled," Smith said Friday, a day after attending Bray's wake. "We're too young for this to happen. … He was the greatest athlete to ever grace the halls of Gateway high school and you wouldn't know that to talk to him. He just kind of went about his business."

In a way, Bray helped Smith get the Penn State job; he had once endorsed Smith to Bob Shoop, who, for that reason and another strong endorsement by Temple linebackers coach Mike Siravo, suggested Smith's name to Franklin when the new coach was looking for an assistant -- one with Penn State ties -- to round out his staff.

Smith coached at Gateway for 12 seasons, 11 of them as the head coach and 10 as the school's athletic director, before resigning after the school board voted to reduce his AD position to part-time and cut his salary last winter. He was the wide receivers coach at Temple this past season and believes the transition to the opposite side of the ball will be a smooth one.

"When you coach wide receivers, you have to study defensive backs," said Smith, whose stepson, Justin King, was a two-time all-conference cornerback at Penn State and a fourth-round NFL draft choice. "You have to know their techniques and know their coverages. You've got to know when they're disguising and not. … I'm a fundamental guy, so I'll be technical with my guys. and teach them how to improvise to become great."

Franklin had been impressed by Smith from the time he started recruited Gateway players while an assistant coach at Maryland.

"I'm a guy that always keeps a list of people that I meet that I think would be guys that I'd like to hire at some point or at least get to know better," Franklin said. "He was on that list for a long time."

Smith is the only coach on the staff with a direct previous tie to Penn State, a distinction that isn't lost on him.

"I have a lot of history here, and I have a lot of relationships with the history here," he said. "That's one of my roles, to try to embrace that. The past is important. History is important. We need to know where we've come from to know where we need to go."

Still, when Smith thinks about where he has come from, it's hard not to think of Bray.

"You count your blessings," Smith said. "I'm excited for my opportunity here, but humbled by the fact that one of my best friends is no longer here.

"I know he's looking down and giving me his blessings and congratulations."

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