BIG SANDY, TX. (WCIA) — In Big Sandy, Texas, everyone knows who Illinois head coach Lovie Smith is. Around town, he’s just known as ‘Lovie.’
“His aunt named him Lovie,” longtime friend Linda Childress said. “She just knew it was going to be a girl but he never felt strange with that name because he grew up with a Goober, a Porky, Squeaky.”
The former NFL coach was a three-state champion and all-state football player for his hometown Wildcats. The Big Sandy program dominated during his time there, planting his now famous defensive roots. Smith and Big Sandy defense recorded 11 shutouts and allowed just 15 points one season, setting a national record at the time. In the same building where his signed Illini poster hangs is a framed picture of the 1973 team he played on.
“There were 34 in my graduating class,” Smith said. “So a small town. Growing up, no stop light, just a stop sign.”
“There are pieces of Smith left all over Big Sandy. Most of them you won’t find his name on but perhaps his most meaningful mark was left here on Lovie Smith Drive. It was a street he chose in the middle of the neighborhood he grew up in.
“It shaped who I am today,” Smith added. “Some of the core values you get when you’re in a small town, being honest, fair. Your word means everything. There’s no substitute for hard work.”
Located 100 miles east of Dallas, Big Sandy is a remote, low-income town. The same diner Smith spent Friday evenings after football games, is now a local non-profit called Love Big Sandy.
“It’s a community service project that outreaches to the community to give a hands up to people who are needing assistance in food,” program volunteer Wanda Bunn said. “It’d be about 360 (people) a week and this is a town of only 1,300.”
Smith doesn’t make it back to Big Sandy often but his presence is felt no matter where in the country he is. He keeps his philanthropic work with the town private, even choosing to use his father’s name name on the high school scoreboard he donated. Not that Big Sandy could forget him.
“When I was teaching and kids would start to complain and things, I would remind them of Lovie,” Childress said. “He grew up here, he set his goals, he achieved his goals.”
“Big Sandy will always be home,” Smith said. “There’s no place like home.”