Some of the fondest memories of John L. Smith’s life happened in Bozeman.
As a kid, the 66-year-old longtime college football coach and his family would drive up from Idaho Falls to Bozeman each Christmas to spend a few weekends skiing at Bridger Bowl.
After a standout career at Bonneville High School, Smith went to Weber State. His first career start at quarterback and linebacker came in Bozeman and the Wildcats destroyed the Bobcats, 53-3. “I thought I was a real player then,” Smith said with a laugh during an interview on Tuesday morning.
Smith spent the 1971 season as a graduate assistant at Weber before taking a job for the next five seasons on Jack Swarthout’s Montana staff. Although the Griz posted just a 1-4 record against MSU during that period, Smith parlayed the experience into landing a job as Chris Ault’s defensive coordinator at Division II Nevada, a job he would hold for five more seasons.
In 1979, the Wolfpack joined the Big Sky and Smith helped the team to a pair of wins in Bozeman over the next three seasons. By 1982, Smith linked up with college football legend Dennis Erickson. Smith served as the former Montana State quarterback’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach during four seasons at Idaho, a season at Wyoming in 1986 and the next two campaigns at Washington State.
In 1989, Smith was hired for his first head-coaching gig at Idaho. That year, quarterback John Friesz won the Walter Payton Award as the Vandals went undefeated in Big Sky play thanks in large part the offense Smith was now putting his own stamp on. The next six seasons included 53 wins, a 1992 Big Sky title, five Division I-AA playoff appearances, a 1993 national semifinal appearance on the back of Doug Nussmeier’s Payton Award-winning season and a 4-2 record against Montana State.
During his 17 years in the Big Sky, Smith developed friendships with coaches across the league, including former Montana State head coach Cliff Hysell. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hysell and Smith would meet at places like Salt Lake City or Bozeman for ski vacations and “to tell war stories”, Smith said.
In 1995, Smith took the head coaching job at Utah State. Three years later, he took a job at Louisville where he coached quarterback into one of college football’s most prolific passers, vaulting himself into the world of Power 5 coaches in the process. The next 16 years would include 13 seasons spent at Louisville, Michigan State (2003-2006) and Arkansas (2009-2011 as an assistant, 2012 as head coach).
On Thursday, Smith’s career will come full circle, at least in terms of his return to the Gallatin Valley. For the first time in more than 20 years, Smith will face off against the Bobcats as he leads his Division II Fort Lewis Skyhawks into Bobcat Stadium.
“We’ve had a lot of good trips there, a lot of good battles in Bozeman,” Smith said. “I remember some of the ice games, some of the snow, the fans in the stand warming you up with ice balls. That’s back when (football) was really the game that it was meant to be. It was a lot of fun.
“I have not been there since they’ve redone the stadium and the facilities so I’m intrigued to see that. I’m sure they’ve made it very nice. It will be exciting for me to get back up there. I have a lot of good memories in Bozeman.”
Smith may have been out of the Big Sky for more than two decades but his influence and the influence of Erickson still linger throughout the league. In the early 80s, Erickson unveiled the single-back offense that was the early beginnings of the spread offenses that are in vogue today. When Smith took over at Idaho, he employed a similar attack as the Vandals lit up scoreboards and both Friesz and Nussmeier became NFL draft picks. Since, Smith has coached quarterbacks like Redman at Louisville, Jeff Smoker at Michigan State and Tyler Wilson at Arkansas. All three were NFL draft picks.
“The one-back game was a way to still get a run game but have more quick receivers who could get in space,” MSU head coach Rob Ash, a collegiate head coach since 1980, said. “Put a receiver on the field instead of a fullback. I remember being very pessimistic, very negative about the one-back offense. No one thought you could run the ball without a lead blocker. The guys like John L. who pioneered that offense proved that you can run by spreading people out.”
Last fall, Idaho State led the country in total offense. The Bengals threw for more than 350 yards a game and running back Xavier Finney still managed to lead the league in rushing yards. The ISU offense is a hyperactive, up-tempo 21st century version that counts the old Vandals’ attack as a big influence.
“Flat out, it’s the carbon copy that you see today,” said ISU head coach Mike Kramer, an Idaho alum who’s coached in the Big Sky for most of the last 35 years. “We are using protections right now still in our offense that were perfected by John L. Smith and by Coach Erickson. The one-back offense allows you to be able to use a slot receiver who’s attacking your weakside linebacker. Those guys are such an integral part of the attack mode that offenses use and everyone has added gas to the fire by trying to play no-huddle. You are breaking the back of the defense on every single play by putting in a run-pass option and having that slot receiver run free. Those guys were really an influential part of all college football and it continues today in a big way in the Big Sky Conference.”
Eastern Washington’s offense has produced record-setting numbers and record-setting quarterbacks for most of the last 13 years with head coach Beau Baldwin as the mastermind. Baldwin also credits Erickson and Smith as huge influences. During the duos time at Washington State, Greg Olson spent two seasons as a graduate assistant. He then spent four seasons as the offensive coordinator at Central Washington, coaching Baldwin. Olson coached quarterbacks for Smith his final season at Idaho before coaching Drew Brees at Purdue. Olson has coached in the NFL since 2003 and is currently the offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Since 2002, Baldwin has coached five different quarterbacks who have won eight different Big Sky Most Outstanding Offensive Player awards. Erik Meyer and Bo Levi Mitchell each won Payton Awards. Matt Nichols is still the league’s all-time leader in passing yards. In three seasons before transferring to Oregon, Vernon Adams threw 110 touchdowns, more than anyone in league history.
“Our offense goes back to the one-back offense that I grew up in before the gun spread, the true one-back offense and that’s where it starts,” Baldwin said in an interview in November of 2013. “Dennis Erickson and Greg Olson, who was my quarterbacks coach and coordinator at Central, are my biggest influences.”
At Fort Lewis, Smith’s Skyhawks run more of a spread option Pistol look similar to the attack made famous by Ault at Nevada. But the prolific nature of the scheme while he was at UI along with his connection with Erickson helped spark a career that includes conference championships in Conference USA and the 2003 Big Ten Coach of the Year award at Michigan State.
“I think without a doubt our offense at Idaho was the beginning of what you see today,” Smith said. “I think my opportunity to hook up with Dennis Erickson was definitely a turning point in my career. I think at that time what we did offensively was revolutionary at the time and there were a lot of people who did not know what to do with it, did not know how to adjust to it. It was fast-break football, which is what is being played now all over the country. You can talk about West Coast and this version and that version but it’s all the same darn thing. Dennis Erickson is one of the pioneers in a lot of aspects of college coaching so to work with him as long as I did certainly paid dividends.”
Smith is one of just 19 coaches to ever take three different schools to bowl games. He’s still among the Big Sky’s all-time leaders in winning percentage. He’s won six conference championships in his 22 seasons as a head coach. He’s coached in the Big Ten and the SEC. So, on the surface, it seems peculiar he landed at Fort Lewis, a 3,500-student school in Durango, Colorado.
Smith was fired at Michigan State following the 2006 season and spent three years “retired”. In 2009, he returned to coach special teams at Arkansas. In 2012, longtime Weber State head coach Ron McBride stepped down, leaving an opening at Smith’s alma mater. He took the job in January. By April, Bobby Petrino was out at Arkansas after a scandal involving a motorcycle wreck and a female mistress. A few days later Smith was headed to Fayetteville, breaking his Weber State contract. By November, the Razorbacks were 4-8 and Smith was fired.
Smith didn’t last long on the open market. Former Idaho athletic director Gary Hunter, who’s entering his fourth year as the AD at Fort Lewis, called Smith, offering a unique challenge (FLC went 0-11 in 2012), a change of pace and a year-round pass to the Purgatory Ski Resort. Smith took the job.
“The program part of it or lack thereof is one thing but I think the thing that is more refreshing than anything is the ability to work with kids that are just going to the field and playing the game for the love of the game,” Smith said. “Ninety-nine percent of these guys have no chance of going on to the NFL. In the other situations, you have maybe 40 percent of your kids having at least an opportunity to go on to the NFL. They are like, ‘Coach, how quick can you get me to the NFL?’ Here, that’s never a question.”
Since leaving the Big Sky, Smith has watched the league change and grow. In 1992, Nevada became the first Big Sky team to move to the FBS. In 1996, Idaho and Boise State followed suit. In 2001, Cal State-Northridge dropped football. And in 2012, Southern Utah, North Dakota, Cal Poly and UC Davis joined the Big Sky.
Now Smith gets a chance to return to his roots. He’s played a Big Sky opponent each of his first two seasons in Durango — FLC lost 49-0 at Southern Utah in 2013 and 52-17 at UC Davis last season — but Thursday will mark his first matchup against a charter member of the league since he left.
“The Big Sky is so much bigger than it was back then,” Smith said. “We all knew each other well once upon a time. We’d get together at conference meetings, golf, tell war stories. We were all great friends. It was a great place to grow up in the profession. Those are some of my most fond memories.”
Photos of Coach Smith courtesy of Fort Lewis College Athletics. Photo of Mike Kramer by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.