Former Bearcat Aaron Smetanka ready to help Saint Vincent ‘regain its footing’
It’s late July and Saint Vincent College is alive with the sights and sounds of football. But that is nothing new. The Pittsburgh Steelers have called Latrobe their preseason training camp home for more than five decades.
The home-standing Saint Vincent Bearcats, who will overlap three days with the Steelers when they open their own camp next month at Chuck Noll Field, want the same positive vibes and anticipation to come from fans this season.
Now that would be something new.
First-year coach and former Bearcats great Aaron Smetanka promises to do everything in his power to make that happen as he continues to feel his way around his “dream job.”
“A lot of people are excited for the season,” said Smetanka, whose office is directly below the temporary office of Mike Tomlin during the Steelers’ 21-day stay on campus. “We want the program to regain its footing. It’s been too long since we’ve had success here.”
The 30-year-old Smetanka would know, of course: He was the quarterback for Saint Vincent in 2011 when the Bearcats made their second-ever playoff trip — in their first season in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference. They played in the ECAC Southwest Bowl in longtime coach Bob Colbert’s final season.
Bob Colbert, the brother of the Steelers’ Kevin Colbert, is now an assistant at Greensburg Central Catholic where his son, Bret, is the head coach. Bret replaced Smetanka, who he also coached at SVC.
“That was our only winning season (6-4),” Smetanka said of 2011. “We want to get back to thinking about the playoffs again.”
Still a record-holder in several passing categories at SVC, Smetanka later was named to the PAC’s 60th anniversary All-Time Team.
SVC did not have football from 1962 through 2007 until the program’s reboot.
Only one other team in program history reached the postseason — the 1949 Bearcats who played in the Tangerine Bowl.
Smetanka spent the last two seasons coaching Greensburg Central Catholic. The North Catholic graduate was an assistant at SVC before that so last year’s seniors were freshmen when he was there, but they’re gone now.
“The whole team is new to me,” he said. “I have been with them for one semester, but I can tell you the kids want to be successful in the field and in the classroom. We have improved greatly academically. We have guys who want to put in the time and get ahead of their schedules with lifting and conditioning. I think they’ve caught on very fast.”
When he interviewed his players to gauge their goals, commitment and character traits, Smetanka sensed a common theme.
“The thing many of them brought up was that they want to be held accountable,” Smetanka said. “They said they want more discipline.”
The candid and yet, refreshing, responses gave the new coach a starting point to build around before his X’s and O’x come to life on the big board.
“That came directly from them,” he said. “They know what they want and what the program needs. I want guys who want to be here and be good players, good students, good people in the community.”
Nobody who knows him will question Smetanka’s work ethic. The former personal trainer spends long days on campus as he prepares for his debut season. He researches players. He scouts opponents. He analyzes plays. And that’s all before lunch.
He finally took a vacation to the beach last week. Coaching colleagues joked that he spent most of his time drawing up plays in the sand.
“They said to leave my laptop at home, but I coudn’t,” he said. I love what I do. I can’t relax. I like to put in the extra time year round. We got home Saturday, and I was back at work Sunday morning.”
It’s not unusual for Smetanka to arrive at SVC at 5 a.m. and stay until after 9 at night. He’s done it before. He makes the hour-plus drive from Pine Township where he and his wife, Courtney, and 8-month-old son, Carter, make their home.
“During spring ball I was up at 3:40 so I could get there by 5,” Smetanka said. “I don’t know if the guys see the time I invest, but I want them to know that is what it takes.”
Smetanka’s first recruiting class will consist of players from 10 states — Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, California, New Jersey, New York, Florida and Georgia. He’s bringing in a number of WPIAL players.
Shawn Liotta, who coached Smetanka in the Continental Indoor Football League, said he saw coach-like qualities in his strong-armed passer. The pair won back-to-back championships together, and Smetanka was the league MVP in 2014.
“In the arena league there are a lot of big-time QBs,” Liotta said. “NFL guys, WPIAL Hall of Fame guys … but none of them had the leadership qualities Aaron has. He has the ability to get people to rally around him.”
While the playbook still has a ways to go, Smetanka said fans can expect a run-pass option (RPO) spread look, “Like you see with Alabama or the Rams,” he said. “And we want to go with more pro sets, where we actually work from under center.”
Smetanka does not have any more eligibility but certainly has the energy — and physique — to play quarterback again. The proud alum, who used to play scout team quarterback when he was at GCC, can still fling it around.
“I have gotten pretty interested in the defensive plays, too,” he said. “It’s not all about the offense.”
Looks like the new coach wants to be held accountable too.
Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bill by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .