Roseanna Smith defying odds, challenges of being a women’s football coach

Roseanna Smith is director of football operations and running-backs coach at Oberlin College, a school in Oberlin, Ohio, that has a Division III football program. Smith played football for the Atlanta Xplosion, and in the early years of her coaching journey she coached at Winder-Barrow, West Hall and Flowery Branch high schools in North Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Oberlin Athletics)

caption arrowCaption
Roseanna Smith is director of football operations and running-backs coach at Oberlin College, a school in Oberlin, Ohio, that has a Division III football program. Smith played football for the Atlanta Xplosion, and in the early years of her coaching journey she coached at Winder-Barrow, West Hall and Flowery Branch high schools in North Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Oberlin Athletics)

There are very few women coaching football, college football at that. Oberlin running backs coach Roseanna Smith is one of the few.

At a young age growing up in the Midwest, her grandparents, who were Iowa Hawkeyes season ticket holders, took her to football games every year. Little did Smith know that that was the beginning of something bigger. Her love of football would lead her from coaching at the high school level in Georgia to a job coaching for an NCAA Division III program.

She was the first person in her family to play football. When she went to high school at Davenport West High School in Iowa, she expressed interest in playing for her team.

“We had a really small team, but my goal as a player was not to be the slowest, weakest or the worst,” Smith said. “There was a reason I was there. With football, you get out there and get hit for the first time, and you know if it’s for you or not for you.”

Smith was the first woman at her school to letter in varsity football.

She played until her senior year of high school and thought she would never play again. That is until she went to college at the University of Iowa.

While she was there, a women’s football team, the Iowa Courage, practiced about two hours away from campus in Des Moines. She and one of her friends would take the drive to practice and games. When her senior year at Iowa ended, once again, she thought that was the last time she would play.

After moving to Atlanta, she took a detour and got involved in a sport that was new to her: golf. Again, nobody in her family ever played golf or had any exposure for it.

She began as an intern for the American Junior Golf Association, taking the job to find out if she wanted to work in sports. It did not take long for her to realize that working in sports was a passion of hers. After her internship, she accepted a full-time role.

After her time was up with the AJGA, she played football again. This time for the Atlanta Xplosion, a team in the Independent Women’s Football League.

During her time there, she was a backup in her first season and started the next four on the offensive line. Her team won national championships in 2006 and 2011.

Smith’s journey to coaching began when she met David Wagner, who was head coach of the Winder-Barrow High School football team. He told her to give her a call when she returned home to Georgia after traveling to Sweden during her tenure with the Team USA women’s football team.

After her return, she met with Wagner.

“I met with coach Wagner again and showed him some film,” Smith said. “At the end of that meeting, he gave me the (playbook) and asked me, ‘What are you doing on Monday? Here’s the playbook, I would like you to be a freshman coach this year.’”

After coaching for three years, she returned to work for the AJGA. It wasn’t until she ran into Wagner at a funeral that she saw him again. “Why aren’t you coaching,” Wagner asked Smith.

Smith thought about that and also wondered why she wasn’t coaching. Within a year, she returned to the sport. First, she watched film with Wagner while he was coach at Flowery Branch High. After Wagner left to go to West Hall High as defensive coordinator, he advocated for Smith and helped her get a job as an assistant offensive line coach.

Smith cited Wagner and West Hall coach Krofton Montgomery as two significant influences on her coaching career.

“If David opened the door for me as a coach, Krofton developed me to be a football coach,” Smith said. “A lot of coaches give you a platform to be a coach, but Crofton invested in me.”

Montgomery loved having her on staff even from the time he met her at Winder-Barrow. He saw a lot of potential in her early on.

“I hated to see her go, but she had a dream to go coach in college,” Montgomery said. “She’s a tireless worker. She was instrumental in fundraising, and the kids liked her. It’s hard to find people like her in this world, but she took the leap because she likes to help people and help them be successful. She would also bring a (different) mindset from a non-male perspective in staff meetings. She’s so detail-oriented, and I can see her being a part of a big organization.”

Another person who receives a lot of credit from Smith is Oberlin coach Steve Opgenorth. He offered her the opportunity to coach on his staff because of his belief in her. When she was presented with the opportunity, she knew she had to take it.

“I sold my house in a week,” Smith said. “I put everything in storage. I jumped in my car and said, ‘I will never forgive myself if I don’t try to make this happen.’”

Opgenorth knew that adding Smith to his staff would be a great hire.

“She’s a rock star, (and) she loves the game of football,” Opgenorth said. “That’s apparent in the first conversation that you have. Because of her professionalism and the way she interacts with those around her was a helpful piece for me to know she would be a slam-dunk hire.”

Opgenorth said he sees in Smith an ability to learn, which he believes is a big reason in why she’s successful.

“Her willingness to be vulnerable and grow and ask the right questions,” Opgenorth said. “I believe that high-point coaches are given a platform, and once you give them that platform, you have to allow them to thrive, survive, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes and win. She’s taken that platform and ran with it.

“Even in recruiting, she’s continuing to grow on a daily basis, and it shows daily in the office and around the (players).

There are many barriers women face to get into coaching, and Opgenorth wanted to help Smith overcome the ones in front of her.

“She’s breaking a lot of barriers,” Opgenorth said. “I think for me, (offering) the job at Oberlin, I wanted to do something uncommon. Adding somebody like Roseanna into that mix allows us to do something uncommon. I wanted to change the game and look at this opportunity and program in a different light. It’s not about gender, what they look or talk like, or experience, but it’s about how much they want to be great. She fits that mold, and that’s why she’s here.”

Being where she is right now and having a person such as Opgenorth is helpful to her continuing development as a coach.

“It’s something amazing to invest in me and trust me to be on their team,” Smith said about Opgenorth. “I think anybody who’s out there hustling for change, whether that’s a head coach like Steve, who’s pouring into me and teaching me and asking me to present our plan for the red zone every week. Or, you know, putting me in situations I’ve 100% never dealt with like that, helps me for every future interaction I’ll ever have.”

The few women coaches face many challenges. For Smith, she doesn’t look at it as adversity. Instead, she focuses on how she can get better and use her gift for coaching.

“I’m not saying it was easy. I’m sure people talked about me. Some of the guys on my team when I started playing thought I was doing it for attention. My only intention was to challenge myself and to do something that makes me incredibly happy and hope that I can serve other people in the ways that the coaches and mentors I had changed my life.”

About the Author

Editors' Picks