Mountain View High’s Shelley Smith, left, coaches his football team during two-day practices several years ago. He is retiring this month.

One simple question prompted Shelley Smith to make a midlife career change.

“What can I do to help?”

That’s what the retiring Mountain View High athletic director and football coach recalls asking Saratoga’s football coach 20 years ago when Smith learned from his son, a player on the team, that the Falcons were short-staffed. Kurt Heinrich, one of only two coaches for a program with 70 players, didn’t take long to answer.

“He told me to come coach,” Smith said.

The former college offensive lineman took over the freshman team and soon realized he had found his calling – coaching.

“I got hooked on it,” Smith said. “Then the Saratoga principal encouraged me to change careers.”

Smith, who worked in the insurance business after several years at Hewlett-Packard, transitioned to teaching physical education five years later and said he “never looked back.” The longtime Saratoga resident left the San Jose Unified School District in 2013 for the three-prong job of PE teacher, athletic director and football coach at Mountain View.

Retiring amid his ninth year at the school – Smith’s last official day was Jan. 5, but he agreed to stay a few weeks longer due to the delay in hiring his replacement – “caught a lot of people by surprise,” the 65-year-old said.

Smith, who notified the district of his intentions in November, chose to leave now “because the timing is right,” he said. “From a coaching standpoint, I’m not ready – that’s the hardest part – but my wife and I talked about it and we want to do things while we’re still able to. We have grandkids now, and we want to travel.”

While Smith isn’t sure who will succeed him as coach – former Saratoga athletic director and football coach Tim Lugo is replacing him as AD and teacher; the district has posted the football opening as a separate position – he noted that “the program is in a good place.”

The Spartans advanced to the Central Coast Section semifinals last fall and also qualified for the playoffs three of the four years prior to the pandemic.

“We have a good football program going now,” he said. “The credibility is really good.”

That wasn’t the case when Smith took over. He inherited a team that went 3-8 the prior season and finished at the bottom of the SCVAL De Anza Division. Smith’s first year was rough (1-9 and last in the division again), but the team hasn’t had a losing regular season since.

The 2014 team went 8-2, just missing the playoffs upon finishing in a three-way tie for first in the lower SCVAL El Camino Division. After a second-place finish and 6-4 record in 2015, Mountain View moved back up to the De Anza and qualified for CCS with a 5-5 record.

Smith’s first playoff win came last November when the seventh-seeded Spartans stunned No. 2 Live Oak 28-21 on the road. He ranks it among the biggest wins he’s had as a coach because “no one expected us to do anything in that game.”

Smith will coach one more game before he retires. He’s been chosen to coach the North squad in the Charlie Wedemeyer All-Star Football Game Feb. 5 at Los Gatos High.

“It’s my swan song,” Smith said. “Got to win that last one and go out strong.”