Former Utah State coach John L. Smith says it was mainly "luck" that he hopes holds on Saturday.
Utah counterpart Ron McBride sees circumstances and talent on Smith's teams as reasons his Utes are 1-3 versus Smith.Some Ute players know nothing of McBride's record against Smith. Others know but don't think about it.
But at least a few Utah players say they're determined not to let Smith and his third team, Louisville, torment Mac any more, especially not Saturday as the U. opens its new Rice-Eccles Stadium by hosting Smith's Cardinal squad.
"John L. has beat us the last two years, so it's payback time," says Ute junior cornerback Teneil Ethridge. "The players, the coaches also, need to get back at Louisville, John L. Smith."
Boo Bendinger, a junior receiver from Salt Lake City, agrees. "Even though he's now at Louisville, he beat us twice as coach at Utah State (1996, 1997), and it's going to be in our heads.
"All the things that happened with Chris - you know, all that dirty stuff - he just played it off like it's just part of the game," says Bendinger, referring to the '96 Grabbie Aggies. They took Ute runner Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, now a Pittsburgh Steeler, out of the game by grabbing his privates enough to make him bleed and throw up.
Smith later said on a radio show that such behavior, while not taught, still happens. "It ain't figure skating . . . it's part of the game," he said.
"No, definitely, that's not," said Bendinger. "That's taking it to extremes.
"Man, we still have something for him," he added of Smith, who began his reign of terror against Utah in '93 when he coached Division I-AA Idaho to a 28-17 win in Rice Stadium.
McBride has said nothing of the groping incident or his 1-3 mark against Smith to the Utes lately. He hasn't used it as a rallying cry. Newcomers to the team, like running back Mike Anderson and returned LDS missionary Kau-tai Olevao, a linebacker, knew nothing about the Smith Jinx on Tuesday.
Senior cornerback Dave Richards knows the history of the coaching rivalry all the way back. Richards, like Smith a native of Idaho Falls, was recruited by Smith for Idaho and played for Smith's brother-in-law in high school. "I don't think about it a whole lot," Richards says.
"More than anything, I think about (Louisville's) personnel we played against last year," he said, referring to the 27-21 Ute win in Sluggerville while naming many talented Cardinals. "More than facing John L. Smith, these are the guys we're going to be seeing on the field."
That's what McBride says. "We're playing Louisville, not John L. Smith. I look forward to playing his team. His teams are always competitive, and you're going to have to play hard to win. His teams have always played very good games against us, always played with a lot of emotion."
McBride also notes that, after watching videos of Smith's teams, they seemed to play better against Utah than against the teams on the films.
"They caught us at the right time," said McBride, reflecting on Idaho's 1993 victory. "They had a bye week; we're coming out of (a loss at) Wyoming. That's the year we lost seven or eight DBs. We were ripe."
And Idaho was ready with quarterback Doug Nussmeier, named a '93 first-team All-American by five groups (including AP, Kodak and Sporting News) and still in the NFL.
Mac's U. beat USU 40-20 in Smith's first USU year, 1995, in Salt Lake.
In '96, Utah State won 20-17 in Logan. "The Ma'afala thing hurt us," McBride said, "but it was a close game where one play here or there makes a difference, and they made the plays."
McBride remains perplexed about last year's 21-14 Aggie win at Rice Stadium. "Our effort wasn't good enough," he said, adding that if his Utes can match last week's effort in their 20-12 victory in Logan over Dave Arslanian's Ags, then "whatever the outcome is, I could take it."
Arslanian, who went from Weber State to USU in January after Smith took the Louisville job and who was Smith's Weber roommate-teammate, doubts his pal has a magic potion. His win over Utah with Idaho was likely because Ute players underestimated a I-AA team, Arslanian says. He adds that all Smith's underdogs "expected to do it," and teams that believe often can do it.
Smith claims no special formula. "I don't know, to be honest with you," he said. "We've been fortunate against them in the past, and I'm just hoping we can be that fortunate again. Hopefully, we have a little luck in there, and that luck continues, and I hope there's some kind of jinx there that I don't know about."