Thursday, December 2, 2021

John L. Smith

From farm boy to football coach

August 25, 2004

It's 5 a.m. and John L. Smith has just hopped out of bed.

As usual, Smith has chores to do on his parents' farm in Iona, Idaho. Not the usual chores you might find the farm boy-turned East Lansing city slicker doing these days.

Back then, Smith's immediate concern of the day wasn't if all of his players had made it to the morning workout, but if the cattle on the farm were properly fed. It was here on the farm, the second-year Spartan leader learned the work ethic he would later instill at three different programs - Idaho, Utah State and Louisville - before coming to MSU in December 2002.

Tending to the farm took considerable time, Smith said, but the time doing chores wasn't what fascinated Smith - it was football.

"I guess I wasn't satisfied growing up on the farm, (but) I appreciate the work ethic it gave me," Smith said. "I appreciate having to get up in the morning and do my so-called chores, feeding the cattle - that's part of the deal."

But Smith found new ways to cut the so-called deal in half.

"I didn't have to do (chores) at night if I was involved in athletics, Smith said.

Iona is one of many small towns surrounding Idaho Falls, Idaho, which serves as a meeting point where school children, like Smith, were bussed in for school each day. It was during his grade school days that Smith's intrigue with the game of football began to sprout.

Instead of riding the bus directly home after school each day, Smith instead shortened his route from his elementary school to Bonneville High School. It was here, Smith said, he observed the varsity football practice every day. After, he would sneak into the corner of the locker room and watch his future football coach Ralph Hunter ignite a flame of passion in his athletes.

"I'd kind of sit there and watch this guy run around the room, and he's smacking guys and getting them ready to go," Smith said. "I think at that point in my life as a young grade school kid, I made a point that, boy, I'd like to be that guy some day.

"That guy had an influence on me, other than my parents, that was the biggest influence in my life. He's been like a father to me."

The influence of Coach Hunter continued when Smith eventually played under his idol at Bonneville High School. Hunter continued as the varsity coach through Smith's junior year, when he left to coach at Weber State. But that wouldn't be his last year with Hunter, because his old coach recruited Smith to play at Weber State, where he was a three-year letterman as a quarterback and a linebacker.

Today, the fiery influence of Coach Hunter is seen in the way Smith interacts with his own players.

When he was hired as MSU's 23rd head football coach, he was a virtual unknown, who hailed from the less than glamorous Conference USA - a second-rate football conference when matched to the Big Ten.

But Smith surprised Spartan skeptics who thought very little of the loudmouth, player-slapping cowboy. Smith earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors as the Spartans finished 8-5.

Like Coach Hunter, who was in attendance for MSU's 27-20 loss to Michigan last November, Smith has become a father figure to his team. His paternal role at MSU had to be guided with a certain level of trust, certainly after a 4-8 2002 season with as many problems off the field as it had on it.

Senior BANDIT Tyrell Dortch, who has been through the Spartans' ups and downs, said unlike those outside of the Duffy Daugherty Building, the team knew immediately Smith was a special coach, adding that one of the first things he told the team was, "We are champions and we're going to win."

"John L., when he looks at you, when he talks, he states it right then and there and he doesn't waste any time," Dortch said.

"It's just great for us to have him in the program for another year. We just have to be better than eight wins."

The father-son approach of Smith was evidenced in his naming of the season's four captains. Dortch, senior linebacker Ronald Stanley and senior safety Jason Harmon and the lone offensive captain - junior receiver Kyle Brown. Brown is a quiet type and seemed like an unlikely pick, but he proved his leadership abilities with his practice attendance and school performance, which Smith respects.

"Just having him pulling me to the side about being more of a leader out there amongst the players and knowing that he cares about me - he is like a father figure among the players," Brown said.

Smith is no longer on the farm - he hasn't been for some time, but he's excited to tend to his stable at MSU.

There is no more getting up to feed the cattle each morning. Smith now gets up each morning to teach a group of young men about football and better yet, about life.

"I've just been lucky," Smith said. "I've been fortunate enough to get off the farm and see some other things in the world and right now, I'm at one of the greatest universities in the country.

"I have an opportunity to hopefully make a difference in some kids lives and at the same time it's time for us to get back to the Rose Bowl one of these years."

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