Weber State football: Wildcats banking their future on John L. Smith
Ravell Call, Deseret News
Smack in the slipstream of three bowl-bound college football teams, Weber State didn't think twice about hiring John L. Smith as its coach on Tuesday.
OK, so the man once slapped himself in a press conference. Another time he ranted to a sideline reporter that "the kids are playing their tails off and the coaches keep screwing it up!"
In the 1990s, when he was at Utah State, his players were caught on film punching opponents in the groin during pileups.
You can catch him on video in all his glory, raving along the sidelines, tossing his cap, ripping off his headset.
No problem for Wildcat athletics director Jerry Bovee.
"I want to be surrounded by people that I have to pull back a little and not push forward," Bovee said. "I built our staff that way, so that doesn't scare me."
The hiring of Smith was a popular but unconventional choice. While most colleges wring their hands over orchestrating their every move, Weber boldly chose a semi-loose cannon. Better to be questioned than ignored. Smith has never been predictable. The replay of him jokingly striking himself after a loss to Illinois is weird, but his rant about the coaches "screwing up" is Youtube legend.
As he spoke on Tuesday of returning to his alma mater, Smith said "having people accept you once you do come home, that's important too, you know. Don't blackball me right off the bat."
After a pause he added, "Oh, you'll get tons of quotes, believe me."
What's not to believe?
After graduating from Weber in 1971 and becoming a Wildcat graduate assistant, Smith went on to become head coach at Idaho, Utah State, Louisville and Michigan State. The latter was where he got the most attention for his offbeat antics.
At USU he went just 16-18, but did take the Aggies to the Humanitarian Bowl in 1997 — the school's second bowl game in the previous 36 years. It was good enough to land him in Louisville, where he led the Cardinals to five bowl appearances and back-to-back Conference USA titles.
But at Michigan State things turned ghoulish. After an 8-4, start he went 14-22 in his last three seasons before being fired. He spent the past three years as an assistant at Arkansas.
Unconventional as Smith is, the Wildcats know what they're getting. He showed up at his introductory press conference wearing black cowboy boots and a black suit, set off by Wildcat purple tie and shirt. He entertained a mixed crowd of media, school employees and boosters with a blend of anecdotal stories, sentimental reflections and bodacious aspirations.
Bovee said when he and Smith worked together at USU (1995), they talked about a marketing strategy.
"A marketing approach," Smith had said, "is to win."
Smith didn't seem any less gung-ho on his first day at Weber. He said his goal is to win the FCS (small division) national championship. He noted that when he first saw Weber's stadium in 1968, he thought he had made the big time.
On Tuesday, he arose at dawn and drove again to the stadium.
"I had that same sense — I have made it to the big time," Smith said.
It's not like a famous coach on the rebound was the Wildcats' sole option. There are dozens of fiery young assistant coaches, dying for a break. Among the considerations were former Wildcat assistant Don Eck and ex-Weber quarterback John Fassel, a special teams coordinator for the Oakland Raiders. But the Wildcats liked Smith's edginess. He told Bovee when they talked on the phone that "I have a great idea for a coach!"
Considering Smith's outbursts, and his age (63), there's the chance he won't relate to his players. At the same time, he knows the Big Sky Conference, having coached in some capacity at Weber, Montana, Nevada and Idaho. The recruiting realities of going up against bowl-bound Utah State, Utah and BYU are familiar to him.
Last time Weber hired a football coach, it also chose an ex-local who was previously fired. Ron McBride ended up taking the Wildcats to the FCS quarterfinals.
"If there's a pattern," Bovee said, "it's one we want."
On Tuesday, Smith made a plea for support from boosters, fans, students and community, exhorting onlookers by saying, "Everybody get behind it, everybody believe it, everybody spout it — don't be afraid to say it: national champions!"
There was a tenuous echo from the crowd.
"I think this gives us the chance to compete for some (media) space today, and we have to be a little bit different here to do that," Bovee said. "I understand that. I can say, 'We know who we are, and we're going to celebrate it.' "
He can always slap himself in the face if it doesn't work out.
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