New Beavers coach Jonathan Smith the right hire, former teammates say
When Jared Cornell learned that Gary Andersen had resigned as head football coach at Oregon State, the proverbial light went on upstairs.
"My first thought was, 'Hopefully, we can get 'Niner' to come home,'" says Cornell, who played offensive guard at OSU from 1997-2000.
"Niner" is Jonathan Smith, No. 9 on your program for the Beavers from 1998-2001 and now No. 1 on the OSU coaching ladder.
Smith, who quarterbacked Oregon State's 2000 Pac-10 and 2001 Fiesta Bowl championship team, is coming home.
The Washington offensive coordinator will be presented as Andersen's successor during an 11 a.m. Thursday press conference in Corvallis.
Smith, 38, is one of the great Cinderella stories in Oregon State football history. The walk-on from Glendora, California, took over as quarterback late in his redshirt freshman year at OSU (1998) and started for his final three seasons there. He was the quarterback of the Dennis Erickson-coached 2000 team that went 11-1 — losing only at Washington, 33-30 — and routed Notre Dame 41-9 in the Fiesta Bowl. Smith was named the game's Offensive Most Valuable Player.
Now he is coming home.
"I'm excited for Jonathan, and I'm excited for Oregon State," says Erickson, who coached the Fiesta Bowl team and had Smith during his final three seasons at OSU. "As a player, he was as competitive as anybody I've ever been around, and he understood the game. He wasn't the biggest guy, he wasn't the most talented guy, but he found a way to get it done. He knew his stuff as well as anybody."
Erickson, 70, says he spoke with Smith on Wednesday morning via telephone.
"He's trying to put a coaching staff together," says Erickson, now retired and living in Coeur d'alene, Idaho. It won't include Erickson.
"I want him to do it himself," Erickson says. "It's his time. I had mine. I'll advise him if he asks. I'll do everything I can to help him. I'm certainly going to support the program and be around more. That will be fun."
Smith was a winner at Oregon State. In his 38 career starts, the Beavers went 24-14. He was listed at 5-10 and 195, but probably topped out at 5-9. He was less than an imposing presence.
"After I was hired, I met Jonathan while talking to 'Lightning' (equipment manager Steve McCoy)," says Dan Cozzetto, who coached running backs, tight ends and the offensive line at various times during his three years (2000-02) working for Erickson at OSU. "I introduced myself and asked, 'You one of the equipment managers?' He said, 'No, I'm your starting quarterback. "
"Coach Erickson thought he was a kicker," says Tim Euhus, who played tight end at OSU from 2000-03 and four seasons in the NFL. "I don't care how big he was, he had a presence. I saw his leadership first-hand. When he spoke, you listened. He was always a leader — sometimes a quiet leader — but he demanded your attention."
Many of Smith's former OSU teammates have been in a group chat on the Internet in recent weeks, talking about the potential of 'Niner' becoming the Beavers' coach.
"There are a legion of players — maybe 20 of us — who had a petition in the works to send to the president (Ed Ray) and athletic director (Scott Barnes)," says James Allen, the Jefferson High grad who played linebacker at OSU from 1998-2001, then five seasons with the New Orleans Saints. "I guess they heard our screams from afar."
Those who played with Smith at OSU held him in high regard.
"The sharpest football mind I've been around, bar none," says Marty Maurer, who played tight end from 1997-2000.
"Jonathan was a coach on the field, a great leader," says Darnell Robinson, a swashbuckling linebacker who played from 1997-2000. "I vibed off him; he vibed off me. He was always very strategic — Tom Brady-esque in terms of knowing the game. He was not the fastest guy, but one of the smartest guys I ever played with."
"His ability to lead us on the field is something I'll always remember," says Chris Gibson, who once roomed with Smith and played center for the Beavers from 1998-2001. "He's a ferocious competitor. He wasn't the size of your typical Pac-10 quarterback, but he was outstanding."
Smith wasn't an ebullient personality while at Oregon State. But he fit with a high-powered offense that featured tailback Kenny Simonton and receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
"He had a great sense of humor, but he was pretty reserved," Cornell says. "He was kind of stoic. But from a leadership perspective, I appreciate we had a quarterback who wasn't a grandstander. He was cocky, but not arrogant. He carried it really well. He was the perfect quarterback for us."
Maurer recalls a moment in the feature film "Draft Day" where the quarterback lightens the mood in the huddle during a tense moment.
"Jonathan beat them to the punch," Maurer says. "He would ask a question that was distracting, then call a play. He had a calmness, an air of confidence in a way that we had trust he was in control and knew what he was doing."
Maurer concedes Smith was undersized, "but have you ever seen a guy get rid of the ball fast and put in the right spot more often?"
Armon Hatcher, who played defensive back from 1995-98, recalls Smith running the scout team as a freshman redshirting in 1997.
"We'd give him a hard time 'cause he was a little guy, but he had a big arm," Hatcher says. "We thought, 'This guy looks good,' but you never know if it's going to translate to the field. It did. He outdid any expectations. He was awesome."
Cornell remembers Smith's first appearance in relief of starter Terrence Bryant in the 1998 season opener against Nevada.
"Jonny comes running out to the huddle and I'm looking at him like, 'You gotta be kidding me,' " Cornell says. "He was an unknown. He played a couple of snaps."
Later in the season, Smith entered a game against Washington at Seattle in the second quarter. All he did was throw for a then-school record 469 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-34 loss.
"He just lit the Huskies up," Cornell says.
Suddenly, Bryant was Wally Pipped.
"That was the end of that," Cornell says. "He was our guy from that day forward."
Cozzetto wasn't Smith's position coach, but he coached nearly every other position on offense and observed Smith's impact on his teammates.
"Jonathan was a total student of the game," says Cozzetto, who worked this year as an unpaid offensive consultant for Andersen at Oregon State. "He didn't make bad decisions. He could manage a game.
"He had this air about him. He really didn't have to say anything because he was getting his job done. He wasn't a rah-rah guy, but the kids rallied behind him. That team had a unique personality, but when it came time to play ball, they played ball. Jonathan was a major part of that. He was a champion."
Those who coached and played with Smith at OSU are excited — several used the word "ecstatic" — and confident he'll get the job done.
"Jonathan was a cerebral, intelligent player, and he'll be like that as a head coach," says Allen, now a high school employee and coach in New Orleans. "For us — for us Oregon State Beavers — this is a blessing. This is going to bring a lot of alums back to the program."
"I was a little nervous because they were taking so long," Hatcher says. "I'm glad they picked somebody who knows the OSU culture and is not going to use the job as a steppingstone. He'll build a family atmosphere, which will help recruiting. He'll rejuvenate the alumni, the city, the faculty and the players. It's a good move all the way around."
Euhus lives in Corvallis and has stayed close to the athletic department, helping with the Beavers' "Beyond Football" program.
"Jonathan is somebody Beaver Nation can rally around," Euhus says. "We need somebody to rally around at this point in time.
"Many of the former players felt disconnected from Gary (Andersen). I see Jonathan being able to get the alumni involved again at a high level, because he's one of us. I got 10 texts today from former teammates who are all excited. Hopefully, that disconnect is gone and Jonathan is able to bridge that.
"What should feel like home to every former player no longer felt like home. Jonathan will make it feel like home again. He'll re-engage the alumni."
But he'll have to win football games, of course.
"Jonathan will do great," Robinson says. "He knows what it takes to win at Oregon State. He was a key guy in the culture that changed our program. He knows what kind of guys he'll have to recruit to get that swagger back, that toughness back. He has the recipe."