Football coaching nomad John L. Smith returns to Utah
By Kurt Kragthorpe
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Sep 04 2013 11:13AM
As scheduled, veteran coach John L. Smith will bring a lower-level football team to a Utah campus this weekend.
The twist is that instead of leading Weber State against Utah, Smith will coach his first game for Fort Lewis College, meeting Southern Utah in Cedar City.
Having once gone from Utah State to the highest level of college football, Smith finds himself trying to revive a Division II program that lost all 10 games last season. How did this happen? It all starts with a motorcycle crash in Arkansas, an answer that requires some explanation.
The short version is Smith left Weber State in April 2012 without ever coaching a game, becoming the University of Arkansas’ interim coach. He hoped to pursue a national championship, keep the position permanently and solve the financial problems that led him to declare bankruptcy last September.
But the Razorbacks’ season became a disaster and Smith was out of work, leading him to a job with a $67,000 salary at Fort Lewis, a public liberal arts school of 3,800 students in the southwestern Colorado town of Durango.
"He’s an ideal guy for that program at this time in his career," said longtime friend Dennis Erickson.
Smith, 64, labels the job "refreshing," working with players who receive only partial scholarships and play because they love football — as opposed to athletes who have a sense of entitlement, amid the lavish facilities of an elite program such as Arkansas. Weber State would have given him that experience, with adequate support and much less of a rebuilding challenge than he now faces at Fort Lewis.
Smith makes no apology for his temporary move to Arkansas or second-guess the decision for his own sake. "That’s why we’re here on earth, to jump through those doors," he said. "I don’t look back and say, ‘Golly, what if …’ "
Smith’s return to Arkansas, where he had worked as assistant for three seasons before coming to WSU, occurred after former coach Bobby Petrino was fired following a motorcycle accident that led to revelations of off-field issues, including an extramarital affair with an employee. Ultimately, the sequence of events caused both Weber State and Utah State to lose their coaches (USU’s Gary Andersen replaced Wisconsin’s Bret Beliema, who followed Smith at Arkansas).
Weber State has retained coach Jody Sears, who was promoted on an interim basis for 2012, trying to stabilize the program after Smith’s sudden departure.
"I never got caught up in the emotion of it," said WSU athletic director Jerry Bovee. "I don’t have any ill will for John L. I believe we’re all going to be held accountable for the decisions we make, and you kind of reap what you sow."
The folks at Fort Lewis feel fortunate to have landed a coach with Smith’s background. He’s already generated "more enthusiasm in the football program than I’ve ever seen," said Duane Smith, a retired history professor who has missed only four home games in nearly 50 years.
Smith’s arrival in Durango stemmed from his relationship with Fort Lewis athletic director Gary Hunter, who gave Smith his first head coaching job at Idaho in 1989.
Fort Lewis boasts a powerful men’s soccer program, but has little history of football success. The Skyhawks’ 2012 season included a 69-0 loss to Northern Arizona and defeats of 50-0, 58-10, 58-16 and 55-9 in Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference play.
Smith is not deterred, having left Utah State in 1998 to take over a 1-10 team at Louisville and staged a turnaround. While most college rosters are finalized in February, Smith kept signing former junior college players in May and June. The Skyhawks have transfers from Michigan State and Utah State, and Smith estimates two dozen newcomers among the team’s top 44 players.
Having coached at schools with elaborate facilities and a big support staff, Smith said, "Maybe we were a little spoiled at some of those places." At Fort Lewis, the coaches do laundry and set up the practice field, making the job "harder in a lot of respects and more fun in a lot of respects," compared with his previous stops.
The bankruptcy, traced to real-estate debt in Louisville, "nags" at him daily, Smith said, but he expects "good news" soon.
"You try to put it out of your mind," he said, "particularly when you go out on the field."
That’s where Smith is happy. Erickson, Smith’s boss at three schools in the 1980s, said Smith belongs on the field — at any level.
"He’s a great people person, that’s why he’s in coaching," Erickson said.
"His personality is such that he just gets along with everybody and he’s very positive about things."
If Smith had stayed at Weber State, Saturday’s game at Rice-Eccles Stadium would have reunited him with Erickson, who’s now Utah’s co-offensive coordinator. Smith, meanwhile, hopes to bring his Fort Lewis team to Weber State next year.
Bovee wants to accommodate him, with plans to market the event as Smith finally coaching in a game at Stewart Stadium.