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Coached by "Bear" Bryant, Air Guardsman recalls well-respected mentor

Master Sgt. Peter Smith, a phase maintenance supervisor at the 162nd Fighter Wing, works on an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Tucson International Airport. Smith, who is a highly regarded mentor among his fellow Airmen, learned a great deal about leadership as a college football player under famed Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Neve)

Master Sgt. Peter Smith, a phase maintenance supervisor at the 162nd Fighter Wing, works on an F-16 Fighting Falcon at Tucson International Airport. Smith, who is a highly regarded mentor among his fellow Airmen, learned a great deal about leadership as a college football player under famed Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Dave Neve)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Master Sgt. Peter Smith, a phase inspection supervisor here, prefers to be known for what he says and does, not for where he has been or what he has done in the past. For this reason, few know of his impressive accomplishments in the realm of American football -- including the fact that he played four years under one of the nation's most winning and respected college coaches of all time, Paul "Bear" Bryant.

"He taught me how to be a champion and how to be successful," Sergeant Smith said of Coach Bryant. "Most importantly, he taught me how to follow as well as to lead."

Sergeant Smith played cornerback for two of Coach Bryant's six national championship teams in both 1978 and 1979. Coach Bryant amassed a total of six national championships and thirteen conference championships during his 25-year tenure as Alabama's head coach. He held the record for most wins as head coach in collegiate football history at the time of his retirement in 1982.

"You could hear a pin drop whenever he walked into a room," Sergeant Smith recalled. "People in Alabama treated [Coach Bryant] like a god," he said.

Ironically, Coach Bryant was a God-fearing man who "was very religious," according to Smith.

"He instilled in me to be spiritual, and to learn about the Lord and to have a relationship with Him," said Sergeant Smith. "Coach Bryant encouraged me to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an organization which helped me to stay in school and eventually finish college."

Leaving Alabama in 1982 to "regroup," Smith played football overseas as a tight end for Air Force base-sponsored teams. He played for the U.S. Air Forces in Europe while stationed outside of London at the twin bases of the Royal Air Force stations Bentwaters and Woodbridge, and then RAF Alconbury in Cambridgeshire, England.

Sergeant Smith served in the active duty Air Force for six years. He had a one-year stint working for a manufacturer of business jets for military and civilian use before joining the Tucson Air National Guard in 1990. He's been here ever since, and memorabilia in his office reflects his respect for the influential leader who passed away in 1983, just one year after retiring from college football coaching.

"He was the first to introduce me to mentoring. He taught me how to be a mentor," Smith said of his coach.

"[Coach Bryant] instilled in me a quality to never quit. You can always stop, regroup, and go back at it another time, but never quit," said Sergeant Smith. And this is something he instills in his subordinates at work and at home in his own children--four sons and a daughter.

At work, Smith garners respect from both his supervisors and those who work beneath him. "One of [his] most notable leadership traits is the ability to build unity in a time of change," said Chief Master Sgt. David Wolslagel, equipment maintenance flight supervisor here.

"Implementing change is never an easy or simple task, however, Master Sergeant Smith is committed to the idea of continuous improvement and his conviction to this principle is evident. Sergeant Smith does not compromise in this conviction," said Chief Wolslagel.

Sergeant Smith says he tries not to compromise in his personal life either. As a volunteer coach for Palo Verde High School in Tucson, for example, he helped lead the team to a victory in the 2006 state football championships. He was a volunteer coach on local teams for three of his four boys.

"He is always focused on the total team concept and the 'leave no Airman behind' concept," said Chief Wolslagel. "It's reflected in his thinking, attitudes, and actions and is just one example of the leadership he brings to our mission."

Forever a team player who is focused on the mission, Sergeant Smith dates his most meaningful football memory back to the days before Coach Bryant - when his middle school team won the city championship during an undefeated season in which all opponents remained scoreless through 10 season games. "But then Coach Bryant taught me to become a man... not only in football, but in life as well," he said.