If you ask Bruce Smith there is a long list of people he'll be thanking when he steps to the lectern to deliver his Hall of Fame speech in Canton this Saturday. But one of the men he credits the most with helping his career get off the ground is the man who will be presenting him for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Ted Cottrell was Smith's defensive line coach for three of the first four seasons of his career (1986-89). When Smith first began working with Cottrell as a second-year player, he had just spent his first offseason re-shaping his body from a 300-pound behemoth to a 265-pound wrecking machine.
Right away it was clear to Cottrell that the talented defensive end knew the x's and o's of the game, but when it came to studying film Smith was far from an expert.
"It was just a matter of what he was looking at," Cottrell told Buffalobills.com. "We spent a lot of time discussing the plan of what to look for in the player, his opponent. His stance, the way he set, when he was run blocking was he heavy on his hands. When he was pass blocking did he cheat in his stance? Can he use his hands well? Was he very strong? Then from his opponent we would move on to the tight end, the guard, the quarterback and the running backs and fullback."
"I think one of the more compelling things that happened in my career was when Marv Levy hired Ted Cottrell to come in and be my position coach," said Smith. "He taught me how to study film."
Once fully versed in the tricks of the trade when it came to film study Smith could not get enough of it. Seeing the advantage it provided him, Smith made sure he uncovered every possible detail he could glean from the videotape.
"He quickly saw how much it could help his game, and you reap what you sow, so he took it and ran with it," said Cottrell. "He enjoyed getting ready for the next opponent. He'd be in watching film at 7:30 or 8 Monday morning after Sunday's game to get ready for his next matchup. And he'd stay there until around noon time."
Armed with strategic knowledge in addition to tremendous physical ability Smith became a dominant force off the edge, and began a string of five consecutive double digit sack seasons in 1986 when he posted 15 quarterback takedowns.
"There are three phases to the game that need to take place, conditioning, studying film and having a coach that you can relate to," said Smith. "If you put all three of those things together you have the makings of something special."
Under Cottrell for those four seasons Smith was special. He recorded 51 sacks in all over that span, the most productive four-year total for sacks in his 19-year career. As a result Smith earned Pro Bowl nods each of his last three seasons under Cottrell (1987-89).
What Cottrell finds most impressive about the numbers Smith was able to compile, was the fact that he did it against some of the best left tackles of his era and all of them were in his division.
"This guy played for 19 years and did it at a high level at one of the most difficult positions to play," said Cottrell. "He had to go against some of the best in the league twice a year. Bruce Armstrong with the Patriots, Richmond Webb for the Dolphins and Chris Hinton with the Colts. These guys were perennial Pro Bowl players. And all three of those guys should be in the Hall of Fame. You're elite when you can beat those guys. You're elite."
No one disputes Smith as elite when it comes to discussing the best pass rushers of all time, but Cottrell maintains that Smith was far more than just a pass rusher.
"Bruce was a good run defender and people forget that," he said. "He had over 1,000 tackles and a lot of those were tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He did a great job of preparing himself."
But the Hall of Famer believes Cottrell was the reason why opponents could not take advantage of him by running at Smith.
"He was the one that helped me become a complete player," said Smith of Cottrell. "It enabled me to play against the run as well as I played against the pass."
Cottrell realized then, and still does now, that to have the opportunity to coach someone of Smith's caliber sometimes comes along once in a career. And for him every moment was a privilege.
"All players are different, but he was special," said Cottrell. "There were some things you could ask him to do that you couldn't ask other players to do because they were not capable. If they tried to do it they couldn't do it. And you'd have to tell them don't try to do it like Bruce is doing it because you can't."
Cottrell would get the opportunity to coach Smith in two separate stints with the Bills. After leaving the club following the 1989 season to coach with the Arizona Cardinals, he would return to Buffalo six years later to coach linebackers. Three years later he was promoted to defensive coordinator under Wade Phillips and oversaw the use of Smith in Buffalo's 3-4 defense of the time (1998-2000).
And though Cottrell took great pleasure in coaching Smith, he will have an even greater sense of pride presenting him on Saturday.
"It's a great honor to get that opportunity to present a player you coached," he said. "I just felt very grateful that he thought that much of me as a coach."
The presentation format on induction day has been altered by the Hall of Fame, and unfortunately presenters will only be afforded a minute and a half to introduce their honorees. But Cottrell is confident he'll be able to appeal to the Buffalo faithful that he expects to be in attendance.
"We're going to get the place rocking and rolling," said Cottrell. "We'll get the Buffalo fans going. I know they'll be there for Bruce and Mr. Wilson in full force."