With hire, Skyhawks go big

Ex-Michigan State, Arkansas boss to coach

John L. Smith is moving from Fayetteville, Ark., and the University of Arkansas to Durango and Fort Lewis College – the Southeastern Conference to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Smith was hired at FLC on Wednesday to resurrect the Skyhawks’ downtrodden football program. Enlarge photo

April L. Brown/Associated Press file photo

John L. Smith is moving from Fayetteville, Ark., and the University of Arkansas to Durango and Fort Lewis College – the Southeastern Conference to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Smith was hired at FLC on Wednesday to resurrect the Skyhawks’ downtrodden football program.

If Fort Lewis College was looking to wake up its football fanbase after an 0-10 season, it may have found the ideal way to do it.

John L. Smith, most recently the interim head coach at Arkansas, was announced as the 12th head coach of the Skyhawks Wednesday, effective March 1.

Smith will replace Cesar Rivas-Sandoval, who was 6-25 in three years at the helm before resigning last week.

Smith brings 19 years of head-coaching experience at the Division I level and 40-plus years of overall coaching experience to Durango. Most recently, he was not retained as interim boss at Arkansas after the Razorbacks stumbled to a 4-8 record after beginning the season ranked in the top 10. He took over that job after the dismissal of Bobby Petrino and eventually was replaced by former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema.

His overall head coaching record is 136-93, with stops at Arkansas, Michigan State, Louisville, Utah State and Idaho, and his teams qualified for seven bowl games in his stops. He also was head coach at Weber State for nearly four months but didn’t coach a game before taking over at Arkansas.

Absolutely critical to the process was Smith’s relationship with FLC president Dene Kay Thomas and athletic director Gary Hunter. Hunter hired Smith for his first head coaching job at Idaho on New Year’s Eve 1988, and Thomas closely worked with both men as an academic dean, creating the kind of friendships that helped land a longtime Division I coach at a foundering DII program. And after so many years in the business, Smith said it’s nice to work with people he enjoys in a comfortable environment.

“If I didn’t know Dene Thomas, if I didn’t know Gary Hunter, it certainly would never have happened,” Smith said.

“We’re 24 years in the road, and I probably visited with him once a month for the last 20 years,” Hunter said. “And I kept track. ... When it looked like we might be making a change here, I just said, ‘John L., we can’t even remotely pay you the kind of money offered to be a (Division I) position or head coach, but what I can offer you is a beautiful environment and fun environment, and come on over and take a look.’”

For Hunter and Thomas, Smith’s hire was the kind of coup that could illustrate to administration, boosters and fans they are serious about getting the football program on the same level as FLC’s other successful sports.

“I’ve had a number of boosters, fans and supporters indicate ... ‘You know, we just don’t see a commitment to football, and we think this can be a good football community.’ ... We certainly hope now that this is an indication that we’re serious,” Hunter said. “John L. certainly is.”

Contract terms have yet to be set, but Hunter said Rivas made in the neighborhood of $67,000 per year and said he hopes to pay Smith a bit more than that figure.

Getting back to more of a grass-roots style of coaching greatly appealed to Smith and was a factor in his decision to come to Durango instead of seeking more lucrative coordinator or head coaching opportunities at a larger institution.

“You walk into a locker room (in Division I), and I love the kids wherever I’ve been, and you’ve got a locker room full of kids just trying to get to the NFL. That’s their number one goal,” Smith said. “Now you’re walking into a locker room where the kids just want to get better today.”

rowens@durangoherald.com