American Football Database
John L. Smith
Biographical details
Born (1948-11-15) November 15, 1948 (age 73)
Idaho Falls, Idaho
Playing career
Position(s)Linebacker, quarterback
Head coaching record
Tournaments3–5 (NCAA D-I-AA playoffs)
Accomplishments and honors
2 Big Sky (1989, 1992)
2 Big West (1996–1997)
2 Conference USA (2000–2001)
Idaho Athletics Hall of Fame (2001)
Big Ten Coach of the Year (2003)

John Lawrence Smith[1] (born November 15, 1948) is an American college football coach. He was the head football coach at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky, a position he held from 2016 until he was fired by the university in 2018.

Smith was previously the head football coach at the University of Idaho (1989–1994), Utah State University (1995–1997), the University of Louisville (1998–2002), Michigan State University (2003–2006), University of Arkansas (2012), and Fort Lewis College in Colorado (2013–2016). He had been named head coach of his alma mater, Weber State University, after the 2011 season, but left after spring drills to take over at Arkansas following the firing of Bobby Petrino in April 2012. Smith has also been an assistant at multiple programs, most recently at Arkansas under Petrino, where he was in charge of special teams from 2009 to 2011.

Early life

Born in Idaho Falls in eastern Idaho and raised in nearby Iona, Smith lettered in football, basketball, and track for the Bees at Bonneville High School, and graduated in 1967. He played college football at Weber State College in Ogden, Utah, as both a linebacker and quarterback for the Wildcats in the Big Sky, then a college division conference for football. Smith was a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity and graduated in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in physical education.

Coaching career

Early coaching career

Smith began his coaching career in 1971 as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Weber State. For the next 17 seasons, Smith was an assistant coach, first at Montana for five seasons (1972–76) and then at Nevada (1977–81) for five more as the defensive coordinator. He then joined Dennis Erickson as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach for seven seasons at three schools: Idaho (198285), Wyoming (1986), and Washington State (198788).

The middle initial "L" became part of his public moniker in 1982, due to another John Smith at Idaho, John G. Smith (1924–1998). On the UI athletic staff since 1965, the elder Smith was the equipment manager at the time; he was the last head baseball coach (1967−1980) and a former assistant coach in football and basketball.[2][3]


After serving as an assistant head coach under Erickson for seven seasons, Smith began his head coaching career in 1989 back at Idaho, where he posted a .716 record in six seasons. Under his leadership, the Vandals won two Big Sky championships and made the 16-team NCAA Division I-AA playoffs five times, advancing to the national semifinals in 1993. Smith's 53 wins remain the most in school history, seventeen clear of runner-up Erickson (36 in five years). His starting salary at Idaho was under $60,000, but after two seasons he became the first UI coach to be granted a multi-year contract, with a four-year deal in January 1991.[4][5][6]

Smith inherited an 11–2 team from Keith Gilbertson that had made the I-AA semifinals in 1988, and returned All-American quarterback in John Friesz. Despite losing the first two games of the 1989 season to Washington State and Portland State, Idaho went undefeated (8–0) in conference play, the only time in school history; the Vandals lost in the first round of the I-AA playoffs and finished at 9–3. Friesz won the Walter Payton Award, was drafted by the San Diego Chargers, and spent a decade in the NFL. Smith's next Vandal quarterback was southpaw Doug Nussmeier, who threw for over 10,000 yards and won the Walter Payton Award in 1993; he was drafted in the fourth round by the New Orleans Saints.

Utah State

In January 1995, Smith left Moscow to move up to Division I-A at Utah State in the Big West, with a five-year contract exceeding $100,000 per year.[7][8] He stayed in Logan with the Aggies for three seasons (16–18, .470). Although Smith took another job in late November, he coached the 1997 Aggies in the first Humanitarian Bowl on December 29, a 35–19 loss to Cincinnati.[9]


On November 24, 1997, Louisville hired Smith as head coach with a five-year contract at $375,000 per year.[10][11][12] Inheriting a one-win team from 1997, the Cardinals improved to 7–5 in 1998 and were .661 through 2002, with five straight bowl appearances and consecutive Conference USA titles in 2000 and 2001. Under Smith's tutelage, quarterback Dave Ragone was a three-time conference player of the year (2000–02).[13]

On December 19, 2002, Smith accepted the head coaching job at Michigan State. He informed his Louisville players of the decision at halftime of the GMAC Bowl, which ended with a 38–15 loss to Marshall.[14]

Michigan State


After opening his first season at Michigan State in 2003 with wins over Western Michigan and Rutgers, Smith's team was unable to hold off a series of late game drives by WAC member Louisiana Tech, losing a 20–19 decision. The Spartans ended the regular season 8–4, and were then defeated by Nebraska, 17–3, in the 2003 Alamo Bowl, a game which also featured the injury of the Spartans' anticipated star quarterback Drew Stanton while he was playing on special teams. Smith was named the Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year in 2003.


The second game of the 2004 season was the second of a "home-and-home" series against Rutgers, which the Spartans lost in New Jersey, 19–14. The Spartans also lost to Notre Dame and dropped a three-overtime game against rival Michigan, but beat a top-10 ranked Wisconsin team, 49–14. The Spartans lost their final two games that season and did not receive a bowl invitation—the first time a Smith-coached team hadn't gone to a bowl since 1997.


Michigan State began the 2005 season with a 4–0 record in non-conference play including an overtime win against Notre Dame in South Bend. However, the Spartans only won two games in the Big Ten and were again unable to beat Michigan, losing 34–31 in the second straight overtime game between the two schools.

One of the most significant games of the season was against Ohio State. The Spartans had a brief 17–7 lead in the second quarter. With 24 seconds and no time outs remaining in the first half, Michigan State faced a second down and 12 yards to go at the Ohio State 17 yard-line. Michigan State tried a running play resulting in no gain. Facing third down, Michigan State likely could have easily spiked the ball to stop the clock. However, with the clock running, it was perceived by many fans and sports commentators that chaos reigned on the MSU sideline. The confusion resulted in Michigan State lining up on the field with only ten players. The ensuing field goal attempt was blocked, and returned by Ohio State for a touchdown to cut the lead to 17–14. In half-time comments on ABC by Jack Arute, Smith, while raising his voice, blamed the coaching staff remarking, "That's a dang coaching mistake...the kids are playing their tail off, and the coaches are screwing it up!"[15]

Michigan State finished the season 5–6, and did not receive a bowl bid for the second straight year.


Michigan State began 2006 with three wins and then suffered an infamous late-game loss against Notre Dame. The Spartans led 37–21 midway through the fourth quarter, but, despite a raging thunderstorm, the Irish rallied for a 40–37 victory. This led to a now-famous video of John L. Smith slapping himself at the post-game press conference.[16]

The following week, Michigan State's homecoming game, the Spartans were defeated 23–20 by an Illinois team that had not won a Big Ten game since 2004. After the game, players from both teams fought at midfield after several Illinois players tried to plant their flag at midfield of Spartan Stadium. In the post-game press conference, Smith admitted the coaches were having trouble motivating the players. Smith also slapped himself in the face as a reference to a claim by Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis who stated that he had been hit in the face during a sideline scrum earlier that season when his Fighting Irish played Michigan State.

Following another defeat to Michigan, Michigan State hosted and lost 38–7 to top-ranked Ohio State. At halftime, Spartan Stadium had mostly emptied, with a large portion of the remaining attendees being Ohio State fans.

MSU followed up those losses with a 41–38 win at Northwestern. The Spartans, down 38–3 in the middle of the third quarter, rallied for 38 unanswered points for the largest comeback in NCAA history. The Spartans then fell to Indiana the following week.

On November 1, Michigan State decided not to retain John L. Smith, and the remainder of his contract was bought out for $1.5 million.[17] Smith and his coaching staff stayed on the job through the end of the 2006 season. Michigan State finished 4–8 (1–7 in the Big Ten). Smith was replaced by Mark Dantonio, previously the head coach of Cincinnati on November 27.[18] Smith had a record of 22–26 (.458) in his four seasons at Michigan State.

Smith has compiled a record of 132–86 (.605) in his 18 years as a college head coach. 12 of his 18 teams have participated in postseason play, including seven straight from 1997 to 2003. Smith is one of 18 head coaches in college football history to take three different teams to bowl games. A defensive coach for most of his career, Smith is also known as one of the disciples of the spread offense, learned from Dennis Erickson, which he introduced at Michigan State.

Return to coaching: Arkansas

After two years of broadcasting, Smith returned to the sidelines in 2009 as the special teams coach at the University of Arkansas under head coach Bobby Petrino, his former assistant.[19]

Weber State

Following his third year as an assistant at Arkansas in 2011, Smith left in December to lead his fifth Division I program at Weber State, his alma mater, an FCS program in the Big Sky Conference.[20] He succeeded Ron McBride, who retired after seven seasons with the Wildcats.[19] Smith coached the Wildcats through spring drills in April, but left days later to replace Petrino at Arkansas, who had been recently fired.[21]


On April 10, 2012, the University of Arkansas fired head coach Bobby Petrino.[22] Almost immediately, there was considerable media speculation that Smith would return to Arkansas, and replace Petrino.[23] This was confirmed less than two weeks after the firing of Petrino, when multiple media outlets reported that Smith would indeed return to Arkansas. He was introduced as Arkansas' 29th full-time head coach the next day.[24] The event was a reversal of roles as it was now Smith replacing Petrino as head coach; Petrino succeeded Smith at Louisville following Smith's departure in 2003. Smith signed a 10-month contract, leading to speculation that he was only taking the post on an interim basis for the 2012 season. The Razorbacks' formal announcement described him as "head coach", without any qualifiers; however, it also indicated that Smith's hiring would allow Arkansas to hire "a head coach for the future of the program" in a more appropriate timeframe following the 2012 season.[25]

On Saturday, November 24, following a disappointing 4–8 season, the university announced that Smith would not be retained as head coach, but would serve as a consultant to the team until his contract ran out in February 2013.

Fort Lewis College

On January 16, 2013, Smith was introduced as the head coach at Fort Lewis College, a Division II team in Durango, Colorado[26] He took over a Skyhawks program that was 0–10 in 2012, last in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC).[27] In his three years at the helm, the Skyhawks went .424 overall and .407 in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

Fort Lewis notched seven wins in 2015, including six in conference games (7–4, 6–3 RMAC). The last time the Skyhawks notched seven wins in a season was 2006, during Ed Rifilato's first stint as the head coach. All four losses in 2015 came at the hands of nationally ranked teams.[28]

Kentucky State University

On December 7, 2015, it was announced that Smith had been hired as the head coach at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, a member of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) in Division II.[29][30]

Coaching Tree

Assistant coaches under Smith that became NCAA or NFL head coaches:

Personal life, family, and honors

Smith married the former Diana Flora on August 15, 1970, and they have three children: Nicholas, Kayse, and Sam. He is the uncle of Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith.[31]

Smith has earned a reputation for his adventurous attitude and actions, including para-gliding with his children in Zermatt, Switzerland, climbing 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, flying in a T-38 Talon jet trainer in Texas at Randolph Air Force Base, skydiving from 14,000 feet over Greensburg, Indiana, and running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

In 2000 Sports Illustrated recognized Smith as one of Idaho's top 100 athletes of the 20th century. He was later inducted into the Idaho Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001.

Smith filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection on September 6, 2012. Smith said he began land investments when he was coach at Louisville from 1998 to 2002, and that he and other investors lost money when the real estate market softened.[32][33]

Head coaching record

Year Team Overall Conference Standing Bowl/playoffs Coaches# AP°
Idaho Vandals (Big Sky Conference) (1989–1994)
1989 Idaho 9–3 8–0 1st L NCAA Division I-AA First Round
1990 Idaho 9–4 6–2 2nd L NCAA Division I-AA Quarterfinal
1991 Idaho 6–5 4–4 T–4th
1992 Idaho 9–3 6–1 1st L NCAA Division I-AA First Round
1993 Idaho 11–3 5–2 T–2nd L NCAA Division I-AA Semifinal
1994 Idaho 9–3 5–2 T–2nd L NCAA Division I-AA First Round
Idaho: 53–21 34–11
Utah State Aggies (Big West Conference) (1995–1997)
1995 Utah State 4–7 4–2 T–2nd
1996 Utah State 6–5 4–1 T–1st
1997 Utah State 6–6 4–1 T–1st L Humanitarian
Utah State: 16–18 12–4
Louisville Cardinals (Conference USA) (1998–2002)
1998 Louisville 7–5 4–2 3rd L Motor City
1999 Louisville 7–5 4–2 T–2nd L Humanitarian
2000 Louisville 9–3 6–1 1st L Liberty
2001 Louisville 11–2 6–1 1st W Liberty 16 17
2002 Louisville 7–6 5–3 3rd L GMAC
Louisville: 41–21 25–9
Michigan State Spartans (Big Ten Conference) (2003–2006)
2003 Michigan State 8–5 5–3 T–4th L Alamo
2004 Michigan State 5–7 4–4 T–5th
2005 Michigan State 5–6 2–6 9th
2006 Michigan State 4–8 1–7 T–10th
Michigan State: 22–26 12–20
Arkansas Razorbacks (Southeastern Conference) (2012–2012)
2012 Arkansas 4–8 2–6 6th (Western)
Arkansas: 4–8 2–6
Fort Lewis Skyhawks (Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) (2013–2015)
2013 Fort Lewis 4–7 3–6 T–7th
2014 Fort Lewis 3–8 2–7 T–9th
2015 Fort Lewis 7–4 6–3 T–3rd
Fort Lewis: 14–19 11–16
Kentucky State Thorobreds (Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) (2016–2018)
2016 Kentucky State 4–7 4–3 2nd (West)
2017 Kentucky State 3–7 2–4 3rd (West)
2018 Kentucky State 0–10 0–6 5th (West)
Kentucky State: 7–24 6–12
Total: 157–137
      National championship         Conference title         Conference division title
Indicates BCS bowl, Bowl Alliance or Bowl Coalition game. #Rankings from final Coaches' Poll.
°Rankings from final AP Poll.

Coaching tree

Smith's assistants who have become NCAA or NFL head coaches:


  1. Forde, Pat (December 30, 1999). "Uncovering initial secret revealed hero of Wild West family". Louisville Courier-Journal. Archived from the original on January 22, 2017. Retrieved January 22, 2017.
  2. Pierce, Oliver (February 17, 1987). "Retired...but not retiring". Idahonian (Moscow): p. 6.
  3. Meehan, Jim (June 12, 1998). "Colorful ex-Idaho coach dies". Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington): p. C7.
  4. Stalwick, Howie (January 23, 1991). "Idaho inks Smith for another 4 years". Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington): p. D1.,971569&.
  5. Wickline, Michael R. (January 23, 1991). "UI, BSU grid coaches get extensions, raises". Lewiston Morning Tribune (Idaho): p. 1B.
  6. "Hunter praises Zinser for help in getting Smith contract approved". Idahonian (Moscow): p. 1B. January 23, 1991.
  7. "Smith bolts Idaho for Utah State". Moscow-Pullman Daily News. (staff and wire reports) (Idaho-Washington): p. 1C. January 3, 1995.
  8. Meehan, Jim (January 4, 1995). "Smith says Utah State best move". Spokesman Review (Spokane, Washington): p. C6.,2516109&.
  9. Sorensen, Mike (December 30, 1997). "Uninspired Aggies get drubbed". Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah): p. D1.
  10. "Utah State's Smith named football coach at Louisville". The Washington Post: p. D3. November 25, 1997.
  11. "Cardinals Name Smith as Head Football Coach". University of Louisville. November 24, 1997. Archived from the original on October 6, 1999. Retrieved July 21, 2017.
  12. Sorensen, Mike; Gates, Chuck (November 25, 1997). "Smith will coach in bowl, than it's off to Louisville". Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah): p. D1.
  13. "John L. Smith". University of Louisville Athletics. Archived from the original on August 20, 2003. Retrieved July 21, 2017.
  14. Crawford, Eric (December 20, 2002). "John L. Smith leaves U of L". The Courier-Journal. Archived from the original on February 25, 2003. Retrieved July 24, 2017.
  15. Video on YouTube
  16. Video on YouTube
  17. "ESPN". ESPN.
  18. "Mark Dantonio".
  19. 19.0 19.1 Archived April 23, 2012, at the Wayback Machine – Smith accepts Weber State job – December 6, 2011 – accessed March 13, 2012
  20. "John L. Smith named coach at Weber St.". ESPN. Associated Press. December 5, 2011. Retrieved September 21, 2017.
  21. Wojciechowski, Gene (April 23, 2012). "John L. Smith sports credibility issue". ESPN. Retrieved September 21, 2017.
  22. "Arkansas fires Bobby Petrino". ESPN. April 11, 2012. Retrieved September 21, 2017.
  23. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 1, 2012. Retrieved September 15, 2014. – April 23, 2012
  24. Schad, Joe (April 23, 2012). "Arkansas rehires John L. Smith". ESPN. Retrieved April 23, 2012.
  25. University of Arkansas. "Arkansas Razorbacks News".
  26. Neiswanger, Robbie (January 16, 2013). "John L. Smith Lands At Fort Lewis College". Arkansas News.
  27. Owens, Ryan (January 16, 2013). "John L. Smith is FLC's new football coach". Durango Herald.
  28. "Smith Resigns from Post; Rifilato Named Head Coach". Fort Lewis College Athletics.
  29. "John L. Smith announced as KSU's head football coach". Kentucky State University Athletics. December 7, 2015. Retrieved September 21, 2017.
  30. Story, Mark (December 7, 2015). "John L. Smith says goal at Kentucky State is championships". Lexington Herald-Leader (Kentucky). Retrieved September 21, 2017.
  31. "Arkansas to hire coach with 49ers ties (but it isn't Greg Roman)". 49ers Blog. April 23, 2012. Archived from the original on April 25, 2012.
  32. "Arkansas Razorbacks coach John L. Smith files Chapter 7 bankruptcy". ESPN.
  33. Arkansas coach John L. Smith files Chapter 7 bankruptcy over real estate that went bust – The Washington Post

External links