The last stop on Steve Ensminger’s full-circle, LSU football odyssey sits inside a small, unassuming town 447 miles northeast of Tiger Stadium.
Smiths Station High is a sprawling campus, complete with a variety of facilities and one of the larger student bodies in Alabama. The school’s staff and administration welcomed the veteran coach, then on his 10th job since entering the industry, in 2009 after a six-year stint at Auburn. Naturally Ensminger, once a productive passer at LSU, coached the team’s quarterbacks and oversaw its passing game.
He also lined the fields. And cleaned the weight room. And ferried footballs to and from the equipment room. And ran the scout teams. But only after he’d drawn up the requisite scout cards — grunt work usually left to assistants boasting one tenth the resume of Ensminger’s.
And LSU’s newest offensive coordinator also taught physical education.
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After all, even with an enrollment figure in the top 15 of all Alabama high schools, a full-time football assistant wasn’t quite in the budget for Smiths Station High. But, boy, did they get their money’s worth.
"That was probably one of the best working relationships that I have ever had with a coach,” says Smiths Station athletic director Sherry Paysinger, now in her 30th year at the school. "The kids loved him. He did a good job for us. He really was a good PE teacher. And a lot of the coaches, I can't say that about."
Yes, the returned son of Baton Rouge last coordinated a passing attack on a full-time basis at an Alabama high school. The team, led by head coach Mark Rose, went just 2-8.
Yet those who routinely crossed paths with Ensminger in 2009 — from player to coach to administrator — paint a picture of that time far rosier than two wins could ever illustrate.
They speak of a man who never met a task too small, no matter how large his reputation loomed.
“You would’ve never known he had as much success as he did in the college game,” Rose says, “because he was just like one of us.”
They describe a colleague who managed to touch others on a personal level within the confines of a work environment.
“Mark and myself just grind all the time, but Steve can grind and slip on a smile, walk in a room and be a breath of fresh air,” says former Smiths Station offensive coordinator Roy Brown. “We were always so serious and everything. I learned a lot from him just how to treat people and how to enjoy coaching instead of making it a job all the time.”
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And players, like former Smiths Station quarterback Mike Nolin, now fully grown and chasing pursuits well beyond the end zone, recount hard lessons that steeled them for later success.
“I got all business. There was no ‘Hey, you did good here.’ He left that to other coaches,” Nolin says. “And I really valued that from someone who was directly above me and expected me to always be in competition with myself. That’s something I don’t think would’ve happened had he been more of a friendly coach.”
Today, only Paysinger remains at Smiths Station; the result of time and life in high school football taking their natural courses. Sitting in her office years later, reflecting on Ensminger’s arrival, she chuckles. If only she’d known.
If only she’d known how this stranger, this new coach from Louisiana accustomed to life in major college football would fit so seamlessly and help lay the foundation for one of her football program’s greatest successes.
“I remember I was kind of dreading it a little bit because I was thinking this guy would expect me to do all the work and sit back and do nothing,” she says. “But how wrong was I?"
One of the only forces in major college football powerful enough to withstand the winds of rivalry is the bond coaches share as part of their professional fraternity — the acknowledgement that underneath your logo and mine are common experiences of 80-hour weeks, unforgiving recruiting trips and stressful family life. This is what allows them to break bread when outsiders might prefer them to break bones.
The first dinner Ensminger shared with Rose, a starting guard on Auburn’s 1989 Southeastern Conference championship team, came soon after Tommy Tuberville resigned in December 2008 (leaving Ensminger out of a job) and is a small testament to that fact.
Having met on a couple forgettable occasions previously, the pair was brought together again by a mutual friend who had recommended Ensminger as a potential candidate for Rose’s staff. Before the check came, Rose knew he had his man. “We just hit it off,” Rose says. “Right away.”
So Ensminger took the job at Smiths Station, and the coaches’ bond grew roots that extended into their families. Ensminger’s daughter, Brittany, worked with Rose’s wife at a nearby radio station. The men stay in contact to this day.
“Every time he comes in the state, he texts or calls. And I’m all for them beating Alabama,” Rose says.
On the field, Ensminger began establishing new expectations for Smiths Station’s quarterbacks, which included film sessions before and after school. His approach quickly proved tough and unyielding. Not long into his tenure, Ensminger was approached by a 5-foot-10, 170-pound junior recently recovered from a foot injury. Nolin, previously a safety and wingback, wanted to play quarterback.
Following a position competition thrown off course by another player’s disciplinary absence, the undersized Nolin won the job. Ensminger drilled him relentlessly on progressions, pre-snap reads and footwork. By the end of his time at Smiths Station, the impression Ensminger had left was unlike any Nolin, a quarterback at his previous high school in south Florida, had experienced.
“He brought a different feel to the game, more experience to our team,” Nolin says. “It was all about (turning) someone who knows how to throw the ball into a game manager, a more disciplined quarterback.”
But two significant problems remained as fall arrived. First, the Panthers couldn’t supply their new quarterback with more than one legitimate outside weapon. Second, they were young. Brutally young.
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“We’d have to call a timeout to get personnel from offense to defense or throw a kid in at left tackle. And I remember (Ensminger) was just like ‘Oh, boy,’ ” Rose says. “But we really coached them hard; they played hard for us. And in six of the games, we had a chance to win despite the fact we weren’t very talented. It was a wild year.” To Rose’s point, five of Smiths Station’s defeats that season were decided by 10 points or less. The fifth and final of those losses, a 22-16 fall at Valley High, punctuated the Panthers’ campaign. Yet the losing never drove to Ensminger to slack on his low-level duties — even cleaning equipment — or grumble in the presence of other students.
Amy Brown, Roy’s daughter and a sophomore at Smiths Station over the 2009-10 school year, grew up with coaches and witnessed many snarl and snap their way through such struggles. But Ensminger, she says, can’t be counted among them.
“He was just very kind. And he would joke around, but he was grounded. Just a really nice guy all around. He always made sure to speak to me, ask how I was doing, how school was going and how life was going. He was someone I could talk to about something more than just small talk.
“So when he told me he was leaving, I was really upset, because I did feel like we were friends.”
Beckoned by Les Miles and the irresistible call of home, Ensminger took his exit to become LSU’s new tight ends coach in February 2010. He began molding an eventual 11-win team that evolved into a national runner-up the following season. Back in Smiths Station, history was brewing, too. And in no small part thanks to the old college coach from Baton Rouge.
Says Rose, “The real fruits of his labor came the next year.”
Two snaps before Nolin delivers the signature play of his high school career on an early October night, his football fight-or-flight instincts take over.
Hunted by a pass rush that sacked him the previous play, he scrambles 20 yards for a first down on a fourth-and-14 play with less than a half-minute remaining. Smiths Station is trailing regional foe Enterprise after Enterprise staked its first lead of the night at 43 seconds to go. Now the Panthers stand on the outskirts of Hail Mary range.
From here on in, it’s Nolin’s instincts working within Ensminger’s training that will guide them into program lore.
First, Smith Station dials up a “sticks” passing play, which calls for every receiver split out wide to run upfield until he reaches the first-down marker, then turn looking for a catch. To Nolin’s knowledge, the play, which gives the quarterback multiple options and stresses both man and zone coverage, had not been installed until Ensminger arrived. And yet the young quarterback delivers right on time, as if his old coach were looking over his shoulder during a hot spring practice.
Nolin’s receiver then scoots out of bounds with possession and, more importantly, crosses into Enterprise territory at the 44-yard line. Time remains for only more play.
The call from the sideline this time is obvious, but that doesn’t mean coaching won’t play a role once again. Nolin corrals the snap, loads up and properly launches the ball skyward as if he’s aiming for the moon, just as Ensminger instructed.
On its descent, Nolin’s pass escapes the outstretched arms of leaping defenders in the end zone who have misjudged the ball’s flight. And as it slips by Enterprise, it settles into Smiths Station arms for a game-winning touchdown.
“I threw it almost 100 feet in the air because I learned from him that defeating the defensive backs is not just the receiver’s job, it’s the quarterback’s job, too,” Nolin says. “And you can see in the video the guys jumped too early because the ball hung so high.”
While Roy Brown had stopped sharing an office with Ensminger months earlier, he could nonetheless see his fingerprints coating one of the most dramatic wins in the school’s history.
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“It was all the things that Steve had been preaching since Day One that came through,” he says. “All the poise and confidence that Mike exhibited that year with everybody around him.”
Smiths Station ultimately went 7-3, its best regular-season finish in more than a decade. The Panthers earned their third playoff berth since joining the largest school classification in Alabama high school sports. The offense averaged 28.7 points per game, the program’s best mark since 1989.
Team success prompted individual recognition. Nolin received an invite to the 2010 Alabama All-Star Sports Week North/South Football Game and committed to Jacksonville State as a preferred walk-on.
All of these breakthroughs can be traced, even slightly, back to Ensminger.
With the sun now slowly setting on his career in the same place it began, and the spotlight never brighter, overlooking his Smiths Stations legacy has never been easier. It’s scattered all across the country, living with the men and women fortunate enough to have been inside the Panthers’ program so many years ago. The most visible sign of Ensminger’s influence lies in the quiet cheers for LSU emanating from the heart of Auburn country.
“I’ll always pull for him — even against Auburn,” Roy Brown says. “I want him to do well and definitely against everybody else. Steve’s just a top-quality guy, and I know he’s going to do well. He’s going to surprise a lot of people, I can tell you that.”
But the greatest impact endures in the Smiths Station heart, where Ensminger resides not as the college coach who dropped in for a year, but a friend. A man with a career all over the map who made them feel like he’d been there all along.
“He’s just a tough, country guy and a great person to be around on and off the field,” Rose says. “There’s a lot of love and respect right there. One of them friends-for-life deals.”