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John L. Smith


John L. Smith

John L. Smith
Sport(s) Football
Current position
Title Head coach
Team Fort Lewis
Conference RMAC
Record 4–7
Biographical details
Born (1948-11-15) November 15, 1948
Idaho Falls, Idaho
Playing career
1968–1970 Weber State
Position(s) Linebacker, quarterback
Coaching career (HC unless noted)
Weber State (GA)
Montana (assistant)
Nevada (DC)
Idaho (DC)
Wyoming (DC)
Washington State (DC)
Utah State
Michigan State
Arkansas (ST)
Weber State
Fort Lewis
Head coaching record
Overall 140–101
Bowls 1–6
Tournaments 3–5 (NCAA D-I-AA playoffs)
College Football Data Warehouse
Accomplishments and honors
2 Big Sky (1989, 1992)
2 Big West (1996–1997)
2 Conference USA (2000–2001)
Idaho Athletics Hall of Fame (2001)
Big Ten Coach of the Year (2003)

John L. Smith (born November 15, 1948) is an American college football coach, currently the head coach at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He was the head coach at Arkansas during the 2012 season. Smith had been named head coach of his alma mater, Weber State, after the 2011 season, but left after spring drills to take over at Arkansas following the firing of Bobby Petrino in April 2012.[1] He was previously the head coach at Idaho (1989–1994), Utah State (1995–1997), Louisville (1998–2002), and Michigan State (2003–2006). Smith had also been an assistant at multiple programs, most recently at Arkansas under Petrino, where he was in charge of special teams from 2009 to 2011.[1]

Early years and playing career

Born in Idaho Falls in eastern Idaho and raised in nearby Iona, Smith lettered in football, basketball, and track for the Bees at Bonneville High School, and graduated in 1967. He played college football at Weber State College in Ogden, Utah, as both a linebacker and quarterback for the Wildcats in the Big Sky, a Division I-AA (FCS) football conference. Smith was a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity and graduated in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in physical education.

Early coaching career

Smith began his coaching career in 1971 as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Weber State. For the next 17 seasons, Smith was an assistant coach, first at Montana for five seasons (1972–76) and then at Nevada (1977–81) for five more as the defensive coordinator. He then joined Dennis Erickson as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach for seven seasons at three schools: Idaho (198285), Wyoming (1986), and Washington State (1987–88). The middle initial "L" became part of his public moniker in 1982, due to another John Smith on the athletic staff at Idaho, John G. Smith, the equipment manager and former head baseball coach.[2]

Head coach


After serving as an assistant head coach for Dennis Erickson for seven seasons, Smith began his head coaching career in 1989 at Idaho, where he posted a 53–21 record (.716) in six seasons. Under his leadership, the Idaho Vandals won two Big Sky championships and made the 16-team NCAA Division I-AA playoffs five times, advancing to the national semifinals in 1993. Smith's 53 wins are the most in school history. His starting salary at Idaho was under $60,000, but in 1991 he became the first UI coach to be granted a multi-year contract.[3]

Smith inherited an 11–2 team from Keith Gilbertson that had made the I-AA semifinals in 1988, and returned All-American quarterback in John Friesz. Despite losing the first two games of the 1989 season to Washington State and Portland State, Idaho went undefeated (8–0) in conference play, the only time in school history. The Vandals lost in the first round of the I-AA playoffs, and finished at 9–3. Friesz won the Walter Payton Award and was drafted in 1990 by the San Diego Chargers and spent a decade in the NFL. Smith's next quarterback at Idaho was southpaw Doug Nussmeier, who threw for over 10,000 yards and won the Walter Payton Award in 1993; he was drafted in the fourth round by the New Orleans Saints in 1994.

Utah State

In January 1995, he left Moscow to move up to Division I-A at Utah State in the Big West, with a five-year contract exceeding $100,000 per year.[4] He stayed in Logan with the Aggies for three seasons (16–18, .470).


Smith went east to coach at Louisville, agreeing to a five-year deal at $375,000 per year.[5] He took over a program that had gone 1-10 the previous year. He put together a 41–21 record (.661) in five seasons (1998–2002), including five straight bowl appearances and consecutive Conference USA titles in 2000 and 2001. Under Smith's tutelage, quarterback Dave Ragone was a three-time Conference USA player of the year (2000–02).

Michigan State

After the 2002 season, Smith was hired as the head coach at Michigan State, which created controversy because Smith was hired before Louisville's bowl game that season, and he did not inform his Louisville players of the decision until halftime of the bowl game, which they lost to Marshall.


After opening his first season at Michigan State in 2003 with wins over Western Michigan and Rutgers, Smith's team was unable to hold off a series of late game drives by WAC member Louisiana Tech, losing a 20–19 decision. The Spartans ended the regular season 8–4, and were then defeated by Nebraska, 17–3, in the 2003 Alamo Bowl, a game which also featured the injury of the Spartans' anticipated star quarterback Drew Stanton while he was playing on special teams. Smith was named the Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year in 2003.


The second game of the 2004 season was the second of a "home-and-home" series against Rutgers, which the Spartans lost in New Jersey, 19–14. The Spartans also lost to Notre Dame and dropped a three-overtime game against rival Michigan, but beat a top-10 ranked Wisconsin team, 49–14. The Spartans lost their final two games that season and did not receive a bowl invitation—the first time a Smith-coached team hadn't gone to a bowl since 1997.


Michigan State began the 2005 season with a 4–0 record in non-conference play including an overtime win against Notre Dame in South Bend. However, the team was only able win one game in the Big Ten and finished the year 5–7, losing several game by more than 28 points. The Spartans were again unable to beat Michigan, losing 34–31 in the second straight overtime game between the two schools.

One of the most significant games of the season was against Ohio State. The Spartans had a brief 17–7 lead in the second quarter. With 24 seconds and no time outs remaining in the first half, Michigan State faced a second down and 12 yards to go at the Ohio State 17 yard-line. Michigan State tried a running play resulting in no gain. Facing third down, Michigan State likely could have easily spiked the ball to stop the clock. However, with the clock running, it was perceived by many fans and sports commentators that chaos reigned on the MSU sideline. The confusion resulted in Michigan State lining up on the field with only ten players. A field goal attempt was blocked, and returned by Ohio State for a touchdown to cut the lead to 17–14. In half-time comments on ABC, Smith blamed the coaching staff remarking "That's a dang coaching mistake...the kids are playing their tail off, and the coaches are screwing it up!"[6]

Michigan State finished the season 5–6, and did not receive a bowl bid for the second straight year.


Michigan State began 2006 with three wins and then suffered an infamous late-game loss against Notre Dame. The Spartans led 37–21 midway through the fourth quarter, but, despite a raging thunderstorm, the Irish rallied for a 40–37 victory. This led to a now-famous video of John L. Smith slapping himself at the post-game press conference.[7]

The following week, Michigan State's homecoming game, the Spartans were defeated 23–20 by an Illinois team that had not won a Big Ten game since 2004. After the game, players from both teams fought at midfield after several Illinois players tried to plant their flag at midfield of Spartan Stadium. In the post-game press conference, Smith admitted the coaches were having trouble motivating the players. Smith also slapped himself in the face as a reference to a claim by Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis who stated that he had been hit in the face during a sideline scrum earlier that season when his Fighting Irish played Michigan State.

Following another defeat to Michigan, Michigan State hosted and lost 38–7 to top-ranked Ohio State. At halftime, Spartan Stadium had mostly emptied, with a large portion of the remaining attendees being Ohio State fans.

MSU followed up those losses with a 41–38 win at Northwestern. The Spartans, down 38–3 in the middle of the third quarter, rallied for 38 unanswered points for the largest comeback in NCAA history. The Spartans then fell to Indiana the following week.

On November 1, Michigan State decided not to retain John L. Smith, and the remainder of his contract was bought out for $1.5 million.[8] Smith and his coaching staff stayed on the job through the end of the 2006 season. Michigan State finished 4–8 (1–7 in the Big Ten). Smith was replaced by Mark Dantonio, previously the head coach of Cincinnati on November 27.[9] Smith had a record of 22–26 (.458) in his four seasons at Michigan State.

Smith has compiled a record of 132–86 (.605) in his 18 years as a college head coach. 12 of his 18 teams have participated in postseason play, including seven straight from 1997–2003. Smith is one of 18 head coaches in college football history to take three different teams to bowl games. A defensive coach for most of his career, Smith is also known as one of the disciples of the spread offense, learned from Dennis Erickson, which he introduced at Michigan State.

Return to coaching: Arkansas

After two years of broadcasting, Smith returned to the sidelines in 2009 as the special teams coach at the University of Arkansas under head coach Bobby Petrino, his former assistant.[10]

Weber State

Following his third year at Arkansas, Smith left to lead his fifth Division I program at his alma mater, Weber State, an FCS program in the Big Sky Conference.[11] Smith succeeded Ron McBride, who retired after seven seasons with the Wildcats.[10] Smith coached the Wildcats through spring drills in 2012.


Prior to Smith's first season at Weber State, the University of Arkansas fired its head coach, and Smith's former colleague, Bobby Petrino. Almost immediately, there was considerable media speculation that Smith would return to Arkansas, and replace Petrino.[12] This was confirmed less than two weeks after the firing of Petrino, when multiple media outlets reported that Smith would indeed return to Arkansas. He was introduced as Arkansas' 29th full-time head coach the next day.[1] The event was a reversal of roles as it was now Smith replacing Petrino as head coach; Petrino succeeded Smith at Louisville following Smith's departure in 2003. Smith signed a 10-month contract, leading to speculation that he was only taking the post on an interim basis for the 2012 season. The Razorbacks' formal announcement described him as "head coach," without any qualifiers; however, it also indicated that Smith's hiring would allow Arkansas to hire "a head coach for the future of the program" in a more appropriate timeframe following the 2012 season.[13]

On Saturday, November 24, 2012, following a disappointing 4-8 season, the University of Arkansas announced that Smith would not be retained as head coach, but would serve as a consultant to the team until his contract ran out in February 2013.

Fort Lewis College

On January 16, 2013, it was announced that Smith had been hired as the head coach at Fort Lewis College, a Division II team in Durango, Colorado, effective March 1.[14] He took over a Skyhawks program that had previously gone 0–10, last in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC).[15] The team finished 4-7 in 2013.[16]

Personal life, family, and honors

Smith married the former Diana Flora on August 15, 1970, and they have three children: Nicholas, Kayse, and Sam. He is the uncle of Kansas City Chief's quarterback Alex Smith.[17]

Smith has earned a reputation for his adventurous attitude and actions, including para-gliding with his children in Zermatt, Switzerland, climbing 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, flying in a T-38 Talon jet trainer in Texas at Randolph Air Force Base, skydiving from 14,000 feet over Greensburg, Indiana, and running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

In 2000 Sports Illustrated recognized Smith as one of Idaho's top 100 athletes of the 20th century. He was later inducted into the Idaho Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001.

Smith filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection on September 6, 2012. Smith said he began land investments when he was coach at Louisville from 1998 to 2002, and that he and other investors lost money when the real estate market softened.

Head coaching record

Year Team Overall Conference Standing Bowl/playoffs Coaches# AP°
Idaho Vandals (Big Sky Conference) (1989–1994)
1989 Idaho 9–3 8–0 1st L NCAA Division I-AA First Round
1990 Idaho 9–4 6–2 2nd L NCAA Division I-AA Quarterfinal
1991 Idaho 6–5 4–4 T–4th
1992 Idaho 9–3 6–1 1st L NCAA Division I-AA First Round
1993 Idaho 11–3 5–2 T–2nd L NCAA Division I-AA Semifinal
1994 Idaho 9–3 5–2 T–2nd L NCAA Division I-AA First Round
Idaho: 53–21 34–11
Utah State Aggies (Big West Conference) (1995–1997)
1995 Utah State 4–7 4–2 T–2nd
1996 Utah State 6–5 4–1 T–1st
1997 Utah State 6–6 4–1 T–1st L Humanitarian
Utah State: 16–18 12–4
Louisville Cardinals (Conference USA) (1998–2002)
1998 Louisville 7–5 4–2 3rd L Motor City
1999 Louisville 7–5 4–2 T–2nd L Humanitarian
2000 Louisville 9–3 6–1 1st L Liberty
2001 Louisville 11–2 6–1 1st W Liberty 16 17
2002 Louisville 7–6 5–3 3rd L GMAC
Louisville: 41–21 25–9
Michigan State Spartans (Big Ten Conference) (2003–2006)
2003 Michigan State 8–5 5–3 T–4th L Alamo
2004 Michigan State 5–7 4–4 T–5th
2005 Michigan State 5–6 2–6 9th
2006 Michigan State 4–8 1–7 T–10th
Michigan State: 22–26 12–20
Arkansas Razorbacks (Southeastern Conference) (2012–2012)
2012 Arkansas 4–8 2–6 6th (West)
Arkansas: 4–8 2–6
Fort Lewis Skyhawks (Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) (2013–present)
2013 Fort Lewis 4–7 3–6 T–7th
Fort Lewis: 4–7 3–6
2014 Fort Lewis 3–8 2-7
Fort Lewis: 3–8 2-7
Total: 143–108
      National championship         Conference title         Conference division title
#Rankings from final Coaches' Poll.
°Rankings from final AP Poll.


  1. ^ a b c Schad, Joe (April 23, 2012). "Arkansas rehires John L. Smith".  
  2. ^ Spokesman-Review – Colorful ex-Idaho coach dies – 1998-06-11 – p.C7
  3. ^ Spokesman-Review – Idaho inks Smith for another 4 years – 1991-01-23 – p.D1
  4. ^ Spokesman Review – Smith says Utah State best move – 1995-01-04 – p.C6
  5. ^ The Washington Post – Utah State's Smith named football coach at Louisville – 1997-11-25 – p.D3
  6. ^ Video on YouTube
  7. ^ Video on YouTube
  8. ^
  9. ^ MSU
  10. ^ a b – Smith accepts Weber State job – 2011-12-06 – accessed 2012-03-13
  11. ^ – 2011-12-06
  12. ^ [1] – 2012-04-23
  13. ^ Arkansas' announcement of Smith's hire
  14. ^ Neiswanger, Robbie (January 16, 2013). "John L. Smith Lands At Fort Lewis College". Arkansas News. 
  15. ^ Owens, Ryan (January 16, 2013). "John L. Smith is FLC's new football coach". Durango Herald. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ "Arkansas to hire coach with 49ers ties (but it isn't Greg Roman)". 49ers Blog. April 23, 2012. 

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