Now that football season is near, Aaron Smetanka gets up every morning around 5 a.m., wipes the sleep from his eyes and heads off to work.
And work, although Smetanka would never really call it that, is more than an hour away from his home as the first-year head football coach at St. Vincent College.
There, he puts in about 12 or 13 hours, heads back to Pine Township, and basically does it all over again the next day.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Long days. But I love it, though,” Smetanka said as he got to experience another first — Presidents’ Athletic Conference Football Media Day — Tuesday at SVC’s Carey Center. “I love putting the time in and that our staff is, as well, making sure the transition goes as well as it can this first year.”
This may be Smetanka’s first college head coaching job, but it’s not like he’s new at it.
After playing out his final years of eligibility as a quarterback at St. Vincent in 2010-11 — he’s still the modern-day program record-holder for passing yards (4,117), touchdowns (31), completions (331) and attempts (536) in only two seasons — Smetanka was an assistant there from 2013-15, and then spent the past two years as head coach at Greensburg Central Catholic High School, where his team improved from 2-8 to 7-3 and just missed the playoffs in 2018.
Now, Smetanka is literally living the dream.
“It’s a second home for me,” is how he describes it. “This is a place I always want to be a part of.
“Hopefully I’m here for the rest of my career. This is a dream job for me.”
The 30-year-old Smetanka, who also played professionally in the Continental Indoor Football League and was named MVP in 2014 following successive titles with Erie, knew what he was getting into when he was hired back in December as SVC’s third head coach since the program was reinstated in 2007. During that time — 12 years — the Bearcats have had one winning season (6-5), and that was when Smetanka was a senior (2011) and led them to the ECAC Southwest Bowl, where they lost to Lebanon Valley (Pa.).
So, when he was finally named to replace Ron Dolciato, who was not retained after going 17-41 in five years, Smetanka also got a late start on the recruiting trail. Now, he and his assistant coaches are trying to make up for lost time.
Still, it’s all good as far as Smetanka is concerned.
“Thing’s are going well, honestly,” Smetanka offered. “Ever since I took the job over, I’ve been very excited with the outlook of the school and how the students have been, the administration, professors and the players.
“The players have been putting in the time in and working hard. They actually want to see the growth of this program. They want to put that time and effort in and see what we can do going forward.
“I know our players have worked very, very hard, academically and athletically. We’re going to do the right things in the classroom, in the community and then on the football field.”
One of those players who has noticed the difference is senior wide receiver Sam Nowicki, who was named All-PAC Honorable Mention last year after leading the conference in kick-return yards (21.1 average). Nowicki, who played his high school ball at Greensburg Central Catholic, was the Bearcats’ player representative for media day and spoke on behalf of the team.
“You can tell the overall energy between the players and coaches has changed drastically,” Nowicki indicated. “It’s extremely exciting.
“I don’t really like to look at my own stats. I like to focus more on helping to contribute to my team’s success, whether it’s on the field or off the field.”
And those off-field things are every bit as important as what happens in practice and games. Actually, Smetanka says that comes first.
“I know things have been a little different here. I want our players to understand that we really are changing things,” Smetanka stressed.
“And I think the kids and everybody else on campus saw that right away. This isn’t the same team and the way things were run before.
“I feel like the reception on (the players) end has been great,” Smetanka added, “and I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from the administration on the classroom end of it. On the field, all of the coaches we brought back are seeing it. They’re the ones who have really noticed the difference from last year to this year.
“They all have those qualities that are our core values — faith, positive attitude, work ethic, competition and sacrifice. Those are all things we’re very much going to need going into this upcoming season.”
Just don’t ask Smetanka what his expectations are for this season. It’s way too early in the process for that.
“Right now, it’s just continuing to improve. That’s where we have to start,” Smetanka simplified.
“We can’t put a number on anything as far as wins or anything like that. We have to just take it one day at a time.
“Realistically, we’re starting over, and we’ve got to go from there. We’re taking it one day at a time, one week at a time and one game at a time.
“Success is making sure that our players are doing all the things correctly,” Smetanka continued. “That is academically, athletically, socially, spiritually and in the community.
“That’s actually what our motto is. Those are all the things I expect from our coaching staff and our players.
“We have to make sure that we’re holding them accountable, off the field and on the field, and make sure they are doing the right things and giving back to our players. On the field, it’s going to be getting better in practice, during the week and then in each game throughout the season. We have to make sure we’re improving.”
As for the time spent away from home...well, again, Smetanka doesn’t mind. Even if that does mean getting up when he does.
“I want to make sure I get a lot of work done in the morning in case I have any engagements or meetings with the administration here,” Smetanka explained. “Then, in case there are kids coming on campus for visits, I can make that time for them it the late morning or afternoon.
“That’s why I want to come in early. I want to make sure I get things done on my end, whether that be paperwork or football-wise, so that I can use the other time for recruits or anything else that’s going on on campus.
“But this is definitely my dream job,” he reiterated. “I love the school and everything about it...ever since the first day when I took my first visit here.
“I knew this was the place I wanted to be after transferring (from Robert Morris University) for my final two years of eligibility. The people here treat you like family.
“I thought maybe it was just because I was a new recruit and it was my first day. But nothing has changed in that regard.
“I’m just excited to get into camp next Thursday (Aug. 15). We’ll finally be able to work with these kids on the field and really get going.”
St. Vincent, which won only one game last year (1-9), opens its first season under Smetanka on Sept. 7 at home against Ithaca. The Bearcats then have a bye week before beginning PAC play Sept. 21 at Westminster.