Fayetteville’s Gifts to Mercer University

Wally Butts, University of Georgia head football coach (1939-1960) said ““Phoney” was the best football player I ever saw play.” Coach Butts coached a few of the “best”, the likes of Frankie Sinkwich, Charlie Trippi, and Johnny Rauch. Speaking in Mercer University’s Chapel (Macon GA) on Alumni Day, 1954, Butts stated, “I have seen a lot of great backs in my years of coaching at Georgia, but I have never seen a better one than “Phoney”.”

Bernie Moore, head football coach at Mercer University (1926-1928), Louisiana State University (1935-1947), and served as Southeastern Conference Commissioner (1948-1966) labeled the “Tennessee ghost” “the best halfback I ever saw or coached.” The knowledge with which Coach Butts and Coach Moore speak is firsthand. Coach Butts was a teammate with Phoney and Coach Moore was his coach.

The accolades do not end with Coaches Butts and Moore. Notables in old-time football circles such as but not limited to, Edwin Camp, Harry Mehre, Frank Thomas, George (Kid) Woodruff, coaches, sport’s writers, etc. also tagged the Fayetteville TN native “the greatest.”

When something happens out of the blue, it is usually something completely unexpected. This was the case recently when I received a call from a Nashville TN friend by the name of Bob Simmons. Bob starred in football at Central High School in Fayetteville (1951-1954) and was athletic enough to receive a full football scholarship to Vanderbilt University graduating in 1958 with a civil engineering degree. Bob was seeking information on a Fayetteville native that also played football at Central High School who later starred at Mercer University.

“Dick, do you remember a guy by the name of Joseph Farrar “Phoney” Smith, who was a star athlete from Fayetteville?” The out of the blue call caught me cold and off guard. The name rang a bell. The only reason I could imagine Bob calling with his inquiry was because “Phoney’s” middle name was Farrar. I assured Bob that he had whetted my interest and that I would “peel the onion back” and get back to him. It is not unusual that college and university Sports Information Departments maintain archive upon archive of records. Would Mercer University even have a Sports Information Department? If so, would records go back to the 1920’s? Thus, I emailed an inquiry to Kraig J. Doremus, Assistant Director of Media Relations for Mercer. The email went as follows:

Mr. Doremus:

I am seeking information on Joseph Farrar “Phoney” Smith – 1905-1985, who was an All American FB player @ Mercer in the mid 20’s, born and buried in Fayetteville TN. After Mercer, I think Phoney went on to a successful coaching career in south Florida. Bryon Lambert “Crook” Smith, Phoney’s brother – 1899-1990, also played at Mercer with All American honor, also born and buried in Fayetteville TN. Phoney held the scoring record at Mercer for a number of years. Would appreciate you delving into your sport’s information archives and email me any data you may have on these athletes.

In a timely manner, Mr. Doremus provided a plethora of information on the Smith brothers that has obviously and sadly fallen through the Fayetteville-Lincoln County history cracks. It would be very difficult to find local “old-timers” who would recall the exploits of the extremely talented Smith brothers from the 1920’s.

We are totally appreciative of the wealth of information that Mercer University has provided in assisting with resurrecting a most interesting link to our Fayetteville-Lincoln County athletic history. Not only did the SID at Mercer provide information on “Phoney”; they also provided information on his older brother Byron Lambert “Crook” Smith and another Lincoln County native who is in Mercer’s athletic Hall of Fame, Jarred “Red” Simmons from Kelso TN who is Bob Simmons’ uncle.

Joseph Farrar “Phoney” Smith – excerpts from The Mercerian, December, 1955

Editor’s Note:

Joseph Farrar (Phoney) Smith, subject of the following article, is a native of Fayetteville TN, a small manufacturing town of 5,500 in Lincoln County, about 70 miles southeast of Nashville. Little is known of his high school days, excepting that he starred at halfback for the old High School there. He attended Mercer in the years 1924-28, receiving his degree at the August commencement exercises the latter year. He is now living at Dania, FL, where he is athletic director and coach at the South Broward County High School. He played professional football for several years at Ironton, OH after leaving Mercer and also taught in that city. The 1928 Cauldron, which was dedicated to him, said of his exploits: “As a non-nonpareil athlete and knightly sportsman, he has sent the name and fame of Mercer all over America...”

Up in Fayetteville TN where he hailed from originally, natives still point out a white oak tree by the high school practice field. They call it the “Phoney” Smith tree” in memory of the town’s most famous football player of all time.

During a game between Fayetteville and a rival high school, a visiting player took a flying tackle at Joseph Farrar Smith, called “Phoney” for reasons yet obscure, missed his objective completely and crashed head on into the tree, knocking himself out while the fleet Smith galloped on to a touchdown.

This young man, who might as well remain nameless, was among the first of hundreds of would-be tacklers who were to make futile stabs at the “Tennessee ghost” who was later to wear the Orange and Black uniform of Mercer’s Bears so conspicuously that highly qualified gridiron experts such as Bernie Moore (his Mercer coach for two years) and Wally Butts, who was his teammate and now the highly successful coach at the University of Georgia, still rate him as the best halfback they ever saw.

“Phoney” was not particularly big or rugged, as halfbacks go...in fact, he looked almost fragile against some of the giants of those days. At best, he never weighed more than 155 pounds...But he was slender and wiry and tough as hickory and as durable as the Tennessee hills from which he came.

What is even more remarkable, considering the punishment that he took, “Phoney” was rarely injured, even though he was a marked man every time the Bears took the field, for their opponents knew that “Smith was the man to stop.” He played barelegged and never wore a helmet, despite the pleas of his coach and teammates. Furthermore, he was a 60-minute player.

When asked why he didn’t develop a substitute for Smith, Coach Moore snorted and replied: “Can you imagine anybody substituting for Phoney Smith?” That silenced the critics...The crowd liked the idea, too, for Smith was as colorful on the gridiron as he was off of it. Genial, friendly and of a happy-go-lucky nature, he took life, football and his studies in stride, but on the field he was a fierce and unrelenting competitor and, as one writer expressed it, “did about everything but get out the program.”

He walked with a sort of slouch and never took training routines too seriously. He hated practice and was inclined to loaf in scrimmage, but come Saturday – ah, what a transformation! He played like a man inspired...there was nothing he couldn’t do and in a game, he did everything perfectly, rarely fumbling and never making a mistake, running, passing or tackling.

“Phoney” did not seem especially fast on the straight-away – although he was fast enough to run the 100 on the Bear track squad. On the football field, however, he was catlike in his movements and had a lightning burst of speed when an opening presented itself. A marvelous defensive player, he was also one of the best safety men that ever wore a cleated shoe and was unbeatable at catching punts and running them back.

As a kicker and passer he was competent but not great...he was, however, a fine pass receiver and was frequently on the scoring end of passes from the other backs. A natural all-around athlete, Smith also earned letters for three seasons as a forward on the Bear basketball team and as a fleet center fielder on the baseball nine. He ran the sprints occasionally for the track team, but preferred baseball in the spring.

Just how and why “Phoney” Smith came to enter Mercer has never been fully explained. (He first enrolled at Alabama but transferred after a week.) The most plausible reason, perhaps, is that he had two older brothers who had played football at Mercer, one of them being B. L. (Crook) Smith, who had been Mercer’s first four-letter athlete of history under Josh Cody, and later Stanley Robinson.

“Crook” or “Consuelo” as some called him, was an All-Southern end on Mercer’s strong 1924 team, coached by Robinson, which stunned the football world by upsetting a great University of Florida team in Macon on Armistice Day of that year, 10 to 0, one week after the ‘Gators had beaten a powerful Army eleven at West Point, 14-7. The Florida team that year included such stars as Ark Newton and Ed Jones and was coached by Maj. James A. Van Fleet, later to become one of our greatest Army generals in Greece and Korea.

“Phoney” watched that game from the grandstand, as he was a Freshman that year and known around the campus as “Crook’s little kid brother”.

Graduation wiped out the entire Mercer backfield of 1924, and “Phoney” got his chance to shine with the coming of the 1925 season as a member of an all-sophomore backfield, still under Stanley Robinson, a former All-American halfback at Colgate, now coaching at Mississippi College.

Since they were also green in the line, the Bears of 1925 got off to a rocky start, losing the opening game to Georgia, followed by a 6-0 loss to The Citadel at Savannah. Then, with Smith finding himself, they tied a strong Furman team in Greenville, 13-13, defeated Florida, 6-3, on a touchdown by Smith and rolled the rest of the way undefeated, crushing Oglethorpe, 21-7, in the final game.

With the coming of the 1926 season and Bernie Moore – later to coach with great success at LSU and now Southeastern Conference Commissioner – as his tutor Smith really came into his own. He blazed a path over Southern gridirons like a comet and writers all over the nation hailed him as one of the greatest backs of all time. No matter what rival star Smith was matched against, “Phoney” outshone them all...

“Phoney’s” final triumph of a great college career, however, did not come on the football field. It came in chapel one spring morning in 1928 when the late Dr. Rufus Washington Weaver, Mercer’s president at the time, solemnly announced to a cheering student body and somewhat startled faculty that Smith would graduate with the rest of the senior class of that year.

Although an above average student, “Phoney’s” strenuous athletic activities had caused him to miss some classes and his status as a full-fledged senior was in doubt. But Dr. Weaver, a quiet and gentle scholar, settled the issue when he calmly announced – looking straight at Smith - “Phoney” is going to graduate...I’ve personally seen to that.”

A Fayetteville/Lincoln County TN Sports Hall of Fame and Museum would provide a great opportunity to showcase and preserve outstanding athletic accomplishments or contributions such as those of “Crook” and “Phoney” Smith and Jarred Simmons. There have been many stars from yesteryear whose athletic prowess has fallen through the cracks of our local history.

A noble mission of a local Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, if established, would be to preserve, protect, and promote Fayetteville/Lincoln County’s sports heritage for past, present, and future generations.

Mercer football star dies:

Joseph Farrar “Phoney” Smith

Birth:               26 Jun 1905

Death: 27 Oct 1985 (aged 80)

Burial: Rose Hill Cemetery – Fayetteville Lincoln County TN

Pompano Beach FL – Joseph “Phoney” Smith, a former great at Mercer University died. Smith, 80, was known as Mercer’s greatest running back, where he played from 1925 – 27. He was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame on June 28, 1969. Smith, who had lived in Pompano Beach since 1941, was retired athletic director and teacher at South Broward High School. Smith is survived by a son, Jeffery Smith of Fort Meyers, FL, a daughter, Ruth McMahon of Wisconsin, a brother, Byron “Crook” Smith of Tennessee, another former Mercer star, a sister Clara, three grandchildren and one great grandchild. Services will be held in Fayetteville TN. Smith was a charter member of the Mercer Hall of Fame. The 1928 Mercer yearbook, the Cauldron, was dedicated to him, the first and only Mercer athlete to receive that honor. Smith is Mercer’s all-time leading scorer in football, with 176 career points, including 24 career touchdowns. The school stopped playing football in 1941. Smith played professional football briefly for the Irontown Tanks, forerunners of the Cleveland Browns. At his induction into Georgia’s Hall of Fame, Bernie Moore, a former Mercer coach and Southeastern Conference commissioner, called Smith the “best back I’ve ever seen or coached.” Smith called his greatest thrill in football a 95 yard kickoff return against Georgia in 1927. Georgia had not allowed a touchdown in the 1927 season until Smith scored on his run back. Smith continued to play in the game, a 26-7 Georgia victory, despite suffering a broken nose. In his playing days at Mercer, Smith was named to the All-Southern Inter-collegiate Athletic Association team three times and was captain of the SIAA team twice. He was also an honorable mention All-American once.

Byron Lambert “Crook” Smith

Birth: 21 Mar 1899, Lincoln County TN USA

Death: 3 Mar 1990 (aged 90), Lincoln County TN USA

Burial: Rose Hill Cemetery, Fayetteville Lincoln County TN USA

Funeral services were held Monday morning in the chapel of Higgins Funeral Home for Byron Lambert (Crook) Smith of Fayetteville, who died Saturday (March 3, 1990) in Lincoln Care Center following a long illness. He was 90. Eugene Peden officiated. Burial followed in Rose Hill Cemetery. A native of Lincoln County, he was the son of the late A. F. (Buddy) Smith and Ruthie P. Smith and was the husband of the late Marion Cooper Ashby Smith, who died in 1969. He was a graduate of Mercer University, earning four letters each in football, basketball and baseball and one letter in track. He was named to the All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Teams in football, basketball, and baseball. After a short career as a player and umpire in professional baseball, he began a two-decade career as coach at Georgia Teachers College in Statesboro, initiated the athletic program at Georgia Southern University and served as coach for 14 years. He served as superintendent of Schools at Statesboro for two years and as vocational rehabilitation counsel for the Savannah Dept. of Education until his retirement in 1967. While coaching football at Georgia Southern University, his team played the first game ever played in the Orange Bowl in Miami FL.

Smith was inducted into the Georgia Athletic Hall of Fame on Feb. 17, 1979 and was ordained as a minister/chaplain at the Memorial Hospital in Savannah. Survivors include four daughters, Suzanne Geier of Melbourne, FL, Marion Ashby Johnson of Raleigh NC, Seaborn Buchanan of Macon GA, and Rosemary Wallace Smith of New York City NY and nine grandchildren. Family Members: Abel Farrar Smith (1868-1950), Ruth Palestine Ashby Smith (1867-1926) Siblings: Clara Smith Rawls (1908-1989)