Fort Lewis College head football coach John L. Smith has resigned, and he has accepted a position as head coach at Kentucky State University, an NCAA Division II school in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato, who previously was head coach and defensive coordinator at FLC from 2004-09, will resume his role as head coach for the Skyhawks effective Jan. 1, 2016.
“I’m very fortunate that Athletic Director Gary Hunter and President Dene Thomas are allowing me to (take over),” Fort Lewis head coach Ed Rifilato said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I love the players we have. They’re a great group of guys.”
In three years as head coach, Smith and the Skyhawks went 14-19 overall and 11-16 in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
The Skyhawks reached seven wins this past season, including six conference wins (7-4, 6-3 RMAC).
The last time the Skyhawks had seven wins in a season was in 2006, when Rifilato was the head coach.
All four losses this season came at the hands of nationally ranked teams.
Rifilato and Smith have a long history together going all the way back to Rifilato’s linebacker days while playing at the University of Idaho, where Smith was head coach in 1989. In 1998, when Smith was head coach at Louisville, Rifilato became Smith’s director of football operations.
Rifilato was defensive coordinator at Idaho in 2000 and 2001 before coming to Durango to coach at Fort Lewis. He won the Colorado National Football Foundation Coach of the Year honors in 2005 and 2006 while at Fort Lewis College, and RMAC Coach of the Year honors while at New Mexico Highlands in 1999.
The new FLC head coach said Smith left his mark on the school and the football program.
“I love him to death,” Rifilato said. “We’re going to miss coach. He came in, and loved the players. He’s an old-time football coach, and the players loved him for that. They’ll get a chance to hug him.”
Smith was hired at FLC in the spring of 2013, and was reunited with Hunter, Thomas and Rifilato.
Hunter was director of athletics at Idaho when he gave Smith his first shot at head coaching at Idaho in 1989, while Thomas served as associate dean at Idaho.
Before Smith’s arrival at FLC, the football program was constantly near the bottom of the standings, but according to Hunter, Smith helped change that.
“(Smith) did a remarkable job at changing the culture of football,” said Hunter in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “We were most appreciative of what he did. He set a fantastic foundation for Rifilato to build on. We’ll be much more competitive because of (Smith). This I a very difficult league. They’ll play hard and be competitive in the end; (Smith) instilled a lot of pride.”
Smith will be taking over a Kentucky State University program that mirrored FLC’s before his arrival. The Thorobreds finished 2015 at 3-7 overall and 2-3 in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Kentucky State is a small school with an enrollment of approximately 2,159 students.
According to Hunter, Smith’s announcement was a bit of a surprise. Hunter said he and Smith were having post-season meetings that concerned scheduling and budgeting when Thanksgiving break occurred. Smith went back to Kentucky, where his wife and grandchildren live, and was approached by Kentucky State University.
“I have mixed feelings. We have been working associates and friends for 30 years. We’re really close friends. I felt a heavy loss for me,” said Hunter. “I am a grandfather. I know how much my grandchildren mean to me; so I know how much that means to (Smith).”
Hunter added that he feels comfortable with the transition with from Smith to Rifilato.
“(Rifilato) knows the culture and knows the players, faculty and community. He’s very well-liked and respected by team,” said Hunter.