John L. Smith is a builder and a mover.
The 67-year-old renaissance man and longtime college football coach finished his latest building project and is ready to move on to yet another after spending three years in Durango coaching the Division II Fort Lewis College Skyhawks. Smith inherited a program that had gone 0-10 in 2012, and three years later, he delivered a 7-4 record for the Skyhawks’ first winning season since 2006. The seven wins pushed his career record to 150-112 as a head coach.
After three years of saving a football program in Durango, Smith will try to do it again at Division II Kentucky State, where he will be officially introduced as head coach early this week after resigning from Fort Lewis on Wednesday.
“Their situation is kind of like Fort Lewis was three years ago,” Smith said of Kentucky State on Thursday in a one-on-one interview with The Durango Herald. “They’re saying, ‘Do we keep this thing or do we move on?’ Hopefully, we can go in there and generate a good product like we had to do here. Get some enthusiasm, people behind the program and save it.
“For me, it’s one of those fits you couldn’t turn down. If you were to write a book, you couldn’t write this chapter.”
Smith is no stranger to rebuilding programs. Before his turnaround job at Fort Lewis, Smith took over a 1-10 Louisville team in 1998 and went 7-5 his first year, leading the Cardinals to bowl games all five seasons he was at the helm with, an overall record of 41-21.
In three years at Utah State from 1995-97, Smith turned a 3-8 team into a 6-5 team two years later.
During his most famed coaching stop at Michigan State from 2003-06, Smith inherited a team that went the year before his arrival and immediately turned the team around with an 8-4 season and an appearance in the Alamo Bowl in 2003. That year, he was named the Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year.
Smith said he’s come to appreciate taking on rebuilding programs through the years. He will try to do it again at Kentucky State, as the Thorobreads went 3-7, 2-3 in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference last season.
“You know, my wife (Diana) made that statement to me one time and it kind of makes sense,” Smith said. “She says, ‘That’s what you do good, so why shy away from it and why not accept it.’”
Smith went 4-7 his first year as head coach of the Skyhawks and 3-8 the following year. That record was greatly hindered by the loss of starting quarterback Jordan Doyle to a broken leg with three games still to play in the season. FLC lost all three of those games by a combined 17 points.
In his third season at Fort Lewis, the year most collegiate head coaches are judged on after having two full offseasons to recruit, Smith turned the program into a winner. This time when Doyle again was injured with a broken elbow with two games to play, Smith had recruited well enough to have depth behind him to win the final two games of the season by a combined 54 points.
Smith won’t travel to Kentucky State alone. He will take Dave Brown with him as offensive coordinator, the same position Brown had held at Fort Lewis since 2013.
From the minute Smith stepped foot on campus, he had the devotion and respect of the locker room. He directed a coaching staff and changed the way the Skyhawks recruited and helped grow the team’s available scholarships from 18 to 28, a number he expects to keep growing along with the success of the team.
“He leads from the front, and that’s what great generals do,” said new Fort Lewis head coach Ed Rifilato, who served as Smith’s defensive coordinator at FLC and played for Smith at Idaho from 1983-84 when Smith was defensive coordinator of the Vandals under head coach Dennis Erickson. “That’s what he’s always done. Sometimes he doesn’t have a filter, but he can get away with it. He’s a great leader of men like the Pattons, Custers or Washingtons.
“We are very happy for him and very honored to have had him here for the short time. Fort Lewis is better for having him, and he’s a hard act to follow, that’s for sure.”
Though his 14-19 overall record and 11-16 record in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference might not jump off paper, it was Smith who turned the program from a perennial bottom-feeder to a dangerous team in a loaded conference featuring 2014 Division II national champion Colorado State University-Pueblo.
Smith said his greatest single-game achievement at Fort Lewis was the 23-22 miracle win against the ThunderWolves in 2014. Smith’s Skyhawks were the only team to beat CSU-Pueblo that season.
But, overall, Smith said his biggest accomplishment was sending out 19 seniors as winners in 2015.
Smith verbally accepted the job at Kentucky State while back home over the week of Thanksgiving. He has a house 20 minutes away from campus in Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, and his three children all live in Louisville. He’s expecting his fourth granddaughter later this month and cited the desire of him and his wife to be closer to family as the biggest reason for the move.
He met with his new team that week and said goodbye to his now former players at Fort Lewis on Thursday, one day after his resignation was officially announced. He said it pained him for the team to find out before he could meet with them but said it is impossible to keep a lid on such announcements these days.
He was met with appreciation and gratitude from his former players and intrigue and excitement from his new players.
“Regardless, I have a bit of a reputation back in Kentucky, and the administrators made sure the kids knew about it,” Smith said. “I walked in, and the eyes got big. They go, ‘OK, what did you do at your last school?” I said we went 7-4 and their eyes got big. They said, ‘OK, what about at Louisville?’ I said they won one game before I got there, and then we went to a bowl.’ Their eyes get even bigger.
“They got excited and we started talking to them about what we’re going to do and giving them my philosophies. First off, I talked to them about class. No. 1 is academics, then we will talk about the program and how we have to build it. The same thing I told the Fort Lewis guys.”
Smith never signed a contract at Fort Lewis. There are no buyouts to work out. All that was broken was a handshake agreement that Smith would coach the team. He also was promised a ski pass by longtime friends Dene Kay Thomas, the president of Fort Lewis College, and athletic director Gary Hunter. All three worked together in Idaho.
At Kentucky State, Smith will sign a contract when he arrives. He finished packing his home in Durango on Saturday and began the long drive to Kentucky, hoping to be ready for a press conference by Monday afternoon or some time Tuesday. Kentucky State athletic director William Head could not be reached for comment.
“The hardest part of being a coach is always senior night when you say goodbye to those guys. When it is you that has to leave those people, it’s hard,” Smith said. “The reason I came here was because of my friendship with President Thomas and Gary Hunter. They made it very easy to come out here and go to work for them. We’ve been friends for 30 years, and there’s no reason to not continue to be friends from here on out. I love them both dearly.”
Smith said he would OK all of his recruits with Thomas. If she told him not to recruit a player, he wouldn’t. Thomas went to bat for Smith’s new program, supporting it financially and doing whatever the college could to turn the program around.
Hunter first contacted Smith about joining Fort Lewis while he was serving a 10-month contract at Louisville in the wake of the Bobby Petrino scandal. Smith left Weber State before coaching a game for his alma mater to accept the position in a time when he was surrounded by a bankruptcy battle, with creditors seeking $40.7 million in debt from bad property investments.
Smith said Hunter asked him to consider coming to Fort Lewis when his interim contract ran out at Arkansas, and Smith accepted the invitation based solely on his friendship with Hunter and Thomas.
“(Smith) did a remarkable job at changing the culture of football,” Hunter said Wednesday. “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 him.”
Smith said the transition to Division II from the spotlight of Division I was more difficult than he imagined. The biggest thing he had to get used to was the more relaxed atmosphere. During his time at Michigan State and Arkansas, Smith had gained a reputation for his antics on the sideline and with the media, slapping himself in a press conference after his Michigan State team blew a 37-21 fourth-quarter lead against Notre Dame in 2006 and commanding reporters to “smile” during a news conference in 2012 at Arkansas after another dismal Saturday performance by the Razorbacks.
Smith said his time at Fort Lewis has taught him quite a bit, mostly how to be a bit softer around the edges.
“I think it taught me maybe something I’ve needed for a long time, and that was to have more patience,” he said. “I’m a very impatient individual, and I have a bad temper. So, I think it taught me a little bit about relaxing, taking a deep breath and seeing if we can’t work through whatever problems. Your temper, don’t let it get out of control.”
Smith said he is comfortable at Division II now. He never seriously thought about leaving Fort Lewis before, even when rumors swirled he might leave for Florida if first-year Gators head coach Jim McElwain offered him a position on his staff. McElwain got his coaching start under Smith at Louisville and left his head coaching position at Colorado State to lead Florida last offseason.
“Let’s say Jim would’ve called, I don’t know. That to me, the only thing that would’ve been better about it than here is if they were gonna pay you a lot of money,” Smith said.
He said coaching Division II involves less stress, and he’s learned to appreciate a life outside of his office instead of slaving over film until early morning hours. He’s also learned that the rest of his staff also needs time for a life outside of football.
Smith, who is originally from Iona, Idaho, has done and seen it all. He’s run with the bulls in Spain, climbed 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, flown in a fighter jet and jumped from a plane from 14,000 feet.
He’s ready to make his next leap and take on his next project now, saying the excitement of hiring a new staff and rebuilding another program has recharged his internal battery and once again awoken his unwavering competitive spirit.
“I gotta be moving. I can’t be sitting down. I need to get my butt up and get to work,” he said. “Division II is less stress I would say, but being competitive and wanting to win is always there. That part won’t ever change.”
He hopes Fort Lewis builds on the foundation he’s left and is confident Rifilato can do that. He was encouraged this year by increased fan turnout, the addition of cheerleaders to games and the spirited tailgating parties before games. And he’s going to miss hearing the boom of the cannon he helped restore and bring back to Ray Dennison Memorial Field to be fired after Fort Lewis scores.
But what he will miss most is the town of Durango.
“Other than my good friends in Thomas and Hunter and the kids, I’ll miss the mountains, the skiing of course, the blue skies and the sunshine,” he said. “You know what you see back east? Grey. A lot of grey. You don’t get the clear blue skies and the sun. I’m going to have to plan a lot of trips out to the mountains to get my mountain high. I gotta get that mountain fix at least twice a year.”