Historic hire: How Bills' Kathryn Smith paves the way for women in the NFL

A woman who has risen through the ranks of one NFL team has now been hired by a second franchise to handle a significant role.

AP/File
A May 2015 photo shows Kathryn Smith of the Buffalo Bills NFL football team. The Bills promoted Smith to be their special teams quality control coach, making her the first full-time female member of an NFL coaching staff. The team announced the move in a release Wednesday night, Jan. 20, 2016. Smith was an administrative assistant this season for Bills assistant coaches under Rex Ryan, with whom she has worked for seven years.

The Buffalo Bills entered the record books Wednesday when they hired Kathryn Smith to be a special teams quality control coach, making her the league's first female full-time assistant coach.

The news marks the first time a woman will be a full-time member of a National Football League team coaching staff, a historic achievement in the traditionally male-dominated NFL.

"This just goes to show that the sky's the limit," Ms. Smith's father Robert told the family's hometown newspaper, the Syracuse Post Standard. "This is nothing that we ever thought would ever happen ... to be in the ranks of coaching just wasn't anything I ever thought of, or her mother, either."

"Kathryn Smith has done an outstanding job in the seven years that she has worked with our staff," Bills' head coach Rex Ryan said in a statement. "She certainly deserves this promotion based on her knowledge and strong commitment, just to name a couple of her outstanding qualities, and I just know she's going to do a great job serving in the role of Quality Control-Special Teams."

Smith's passion for football began in high school. When her father became the high school football team's statistician, Smith stood beside him on the sideline, assisting her father in the role.

"We were right on the sidelines the whole time, the two of us together working," Robert Smith said. "She really enjoyed that. She wanted to stay in sports, and that's how she did it."

She went on to study sports management at St. John's University in Queens, NY, where she became the manager of the men's basketball team for four years.

Smith's big break was an internship for the New York Jets, where she worked for 12 years, eventually as Coach Ryan's assistant. When he was fired in 2014, Ryan asked Smith to follow him to his next role, with the Bills. When the Bills fired special teams quality control coach Michael Hamlin, a former NFL safety, Ryan asked Smith to take on that role, making her the first woman to become a full-time member of an NFL coaching staff. 

Smith's promotion is a historical moment for women in the NFL, and there were other women in the sports world who have blazed new trails.

In July, the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter to work with the team's inside linebackers as a coaching intern.

In 2014, the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association hired Becky Hammon, a former WNBA player, as assistant coach, making her the NBA's first full-time female coach.

And in 1986, Linda Bogdan, daughter of late Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson, became the NFL's first female scout when she joined the team's personnel department.

"[T]heir hiring also suggests that broader attitudes within the all-male fortresses of pro sports are changing and maturing," The Christian Science Monitor's Kevin Truong wrote last year. "No one is expecting a flood of women coaches in football, basketball, or baseball. But this small beginning suggests that, slowly, even gender is being put aside in the search for merit in the 'just win' world of pro sports."

"You can see the success some of these young ladies are having in the coaching profession, such as the young lady that is an assistant to Coach (Gregg) Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs," Ryan said, referring to Spurs assistant coach Hammon, "and realize how exciting this is for women like Kathryn Smith as well as the Bills organization."

In an interview with the Monitor last year, Nicole LaVoi, associate director of The Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, said historic hires like Welter's pave the way for other women in sports.

“Obviously, it's historic,” Ms. LaVoi said. “The key part is that she provides a visible role model for other girls and women who love the game of football to view this as a viable career path.”

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