Jonathan Smith will coach more than entertain
CORVALLIS — Notes, quotes and observations from Jonathan Smith's inaugural press conference as head football coach at Oregon State on Thursday:
• Smith made a positive first impression with the way he handled his debut on the scene at the refurbished Valley Football Center. But I wouldn't call it "polished," because it wasn't a performance.
There were a couple of quips, notably when the former Oregon State quarterback was asked about his plan to bring back the swagger of the 2001 Fiesta Bowl champions.
"Well, we had some swagger, but we had 20-some-ought penalties in that Fiesta Bowl," Smith said with a slight grin. "We're not trying to bring THAT swagger back."
Smith also made a crack about his relationship with his coach on that team, Dennis Erickson.
"I talked to Dennis a couple of days ago, and we reminisced about how we used to yell at each other from the sideline to the huddle," Smith said. "I don't know if that's going to work anymore."
But mostly, it was Jonathan being Jonathan, answering questions swiftly and succinctly, with little panache but plenty of authority. There's very little BS with this guy. He's not an entertainer; he's a football coach.
• I've known Smith since his senior season at Oregon State (2001), and have followed him through a coaching career that has taken him from OSU to Idaho to Montana to Boise State to Washington, the latter two stops working for Chris Petersen. When I spoke with him in September for an article I wrote on him as the Huskies' offensive coordinator prior to the OSU-Washington game, I asked if he wanted to some day become a head coach. He said he did, but it had to be the right fit. I wasn't sure if he meant a place like Oregon State, but those are the words he chose on Thursday.
"It is great to be home," Smith said. "OSU fits me, and I fit OSU."
And he got emotional as he said, "The experiences I had here as a player reaffirmed why I wanted to become a coach. Now I'm in front of you guys in my dream job, in my dream town, at my dream school."
• Smith didn't smile a lot during the nearly hour-long press conference. A large media setting remains a bit unfamiliar — not surprising in that this is his first experience as a head coach.
"He's not as comfortable being in the spotlight, but he loves the work he does, which requires the spotlight," says his mother, Robin Smith. "I think he's developed really well. I was very proud of how he handled things today."
• Smith didn't speak off the cuff. He brought a couple of pages of notes to the podium to help him remember to say the things he wanted to say in his address before the question-and-answer session began.
He was prepared, just as he was when he interviewed with athletic director Scott Barnes.
Smith was one of seven candidates with whom Barnes conducted interviews. Smith was the only one he interviewed twice.
"One of the first individuals we interviewed was Jonathan, and he became the benchmark with whom we'd compare the others to," Barnes said Thursday. "We sat with Jonathan Tuesday night to reaffirm what we already knew, to have a little deeper conversation in other areas and to offer him the position."
One of the other candidates was California offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. I believe the other serious candidate was Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin. I'm not sure how far it got with Harsin and Oregon State, but I don't think it's fair to say that Smith was second choice.
• Baldwin, incidentally, was Oregon State's second choice when Gary Andersen was hired in 2014.
Baldwin, then at Eastern Washington, and Utah State coach Matt Wells were 1-2 on athletic director Bob De Carolis' list. Then, over a period of a couple of days, representatives of Andersen, Brigham Young coach Bronco Mendenhall and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman called.
De Carolis interviewed Mendenhall but was so impressed by Andersen that he got the job.
• Barnes got it wrong when he called Smith "one of the most decorated players we've had in our history."
Smith was the Offensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl, but he never led the Pac-10 in passing and was never more than an honorable mention all-conference selection. But the undersized Smith was the leader of one of the best teams in OSU history, and maybe the smartest of the bunch.
Barnes said he likes Smith's tenacity and his authenticity. The AD also was impressed with Smith's pedigree, with such as Petersen, Robin Pflugrad (at Montana), Erickson and Mike Riley serving as his mentors.
Give Barnes credit for listening to OSU football alums, including some of Smith's former teammates, who offered a strong endorsement of Smith's skills as a leader and a student of the game.
Barnes, tongue in cheek, also credited Beaver Nation for its "outpouring of free advice."
• Smith wore his Fiesta Bowl championship ring to the press conference.
During the interview process, Barnes said, "It didn't hurt that Jonathan vividly provided a scenario (in which he would) walk into a recruit's home with a polished championship ring on and a recipe for how it can be done again."
That's not Smith acting like a big shot. He does remember, however, his first meeting with Erickson in 1998, after Riley had left for the San Diego Chargers. Erickson had won national championships at Miami in 1989 and '91.
"Dennis walks into a room for our first team meeting room, starts flashing around a national championship ring and says, 'Why not here? We can get this done,'" Smith said.
Smith said he echoed that message in a meeting of Oregon State players an hour before his press conference.
• Smith is a family man. He and wife Candice have three young children — Robert (9), Bella (7) and Charles (3). They were married in 2002, during the first of Smith's first two seasons as a grad assistant at OSU.
The Smiths met in high school in the Pasadena, California, area. They each had an older brother who was friends of the other. Jonathan and Candice met as part of a high school church youth group and reconnected when they both got to Oregon State.
"We are super excited," Smith said. "We have already made so many great memories here. Coming back knowing we're going to make many more — words don't even express."
• Smith's mother celebrated her birthday Thursday. Call it the ultimate birthday surprise.
She and Jonathan's father, Len, live in Pasadena. He stayed home while she flew to Seattle for the Thanksgiving holiday.
On Wednesday, she took a bus from Seattle to Stanwood, Washington, to see friends.
"That stinker," Robin Smith said of her son. "After we got back from dinner, he called and said, 'Uh, Mom, I need you to come back to Seattle.'
"I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'Well, I'm going to be the head coach at Oregon State. Can you get here in the morning? We have to fly in a private plane to Corvallis. I need you to come and hang out with the kids.'"
• Andersen's assistant coaches were paid with a salary pool of about $2.2 million, which was up considerably from what Riley had paid his assistants before Andersen arrived. Andersen's aides were all working on two-year deals this season and will be compensated through next season.
But Smith will have more money to work with — about $3 million, according to one source.
"The salary pool for assistant coaches is a big deal," Barnes said. "We're going to make a mighty investment in increasing the salary pool for assistant coaches, one that enables Jonathan to get exactly who he wants."
Exactly what Smith wants? Boy, wouldn't that be nice.
• Smith and Cory Hall — the cornerbacks coach who served as OSU's interim head coach over the final six games — haven't yet talked.
"But we will, in the next day or two," said Smith, who said nice things about the job Hall did in keeping the ship afloat after Andersen left.
Hall told me Thursday he hopes to serve on Smith's staff. I think there's a good chance it will happen, but it's not a sure bet.
Here's why: I think Smith has a lot of defensive assistants already in mind, including Keith Heyward, the secondary coach at Oregon; Trent Bray, recently let go as Riley's linebackers coach at Nebraska, and Inoke Breckterfield, the D-line coach at Wisconsin. Hayward and Breckterfield were teammates of Smith's at OSU. Bray came on the year after Smith left.
Heyward would come over only as D-coordinator, so there would be room for Hall coaching either cornerbacks or the secondary. I also see a possibility that Smith will hire another ex-Beaver teammate — Jake Cookus, who worked at OSU as a quality control coach the past two seasons.
I have no information on who Smith has in mind for his offensive staff, but he won't be calling plays, as he has done for the Huskies the past four seasons. That will be left up to whoever he hires as his O-coordinator.
"I see myself being involved offensively," Smith said. "I'll have some contributions to it. But I do not envision being the play-caller."
• Smith is already acquainted with at least a couple of his Oregon State players, including quarterback Jake Luton, who was the Beavers' starter before going down to a thoracic spine fracture in the fourth game that caused him to miss the rest of the season.
"He recruited me when he was at Boise State," said Luton, who wound up at Idaho, where he spent his first two college seasons. "So I knew him a little bit five years ago.
"I'm really fortunate to get to play for a coach like him. He has developed a lot of great quarterbacks."
Luton expects to be back training at 100 percent capacity winter term. He is spending the rest of fall term resting and rehabbing and getting his body right.
"I plan to come back in January and get into full swing," the 6-6, 235-pound QB said.
Luton said he asked team doctor Doug Aukerman about potential risks to a return to football.
"I asked, 'If I get hit again, will I face complications?'" Luton said. "The doctor said no. The fracture was painful and serious, but it was stable. It's not something where if I get hit again that I'll risk further injury."
When Smith was at Washington, one of his recruiting areas was Oregon. One of his targets was Sherwood's David Morris, who wound up starting at safety for OSU as a true freshman this fall.
"When I went on a visit, (Smith) personally took me around campus," Morris said. "We built a relationship. Knowing he is going to come here as a coach was awesome. I didn't even know he played here."
Morris listened closely to Smith's message to the players during the first team meeting.
"He said to do the little things right," Morris said. "Every Pac-12 school has a weight room. Every Pac-12 school has nice facilities. The teams that separate themselves are the ones who do common things in uncommon ways."
• I know school president Ed Ray means well, but he needs to get a different shtick if he ever goes through the process of hiring a football coach again.
Ray trotted out the same pep talk he used when he hired Andersen, warning opponents, "Anyone who comes into our house, if you don't bring your 'A' game, we're going to hand your butts to you."
I'd leave the Knute Rockne stuff to the coaches.
• Smith and his new staff — we're going to hear some names in the next couple of days — will hit the recruiting trail either Sunday or Monday. They'll have 13 high school verbal commits to protect, and they'll be looking to procure some other talent before the Dec. 20 letter-of-intent signing day.
"I know how to sell this place," Smith said. "I'm very confident when I go sit in a room with a mom or a recruit, I can genuinely tell them what it is like and how it looks to get it done. I've lived it. It's been done, and it can be done again.
"Sometimes slogans sound cool and recruiting pitches can be artful, and we'll have some of those. But when you look in my eye and see what it means to me, I believe I can sell this place. I feel very confident on the recruiting end.
"You sell the place and the people. You sell the college life that is unbelievable — the best college town in America. Those are starting points for me."
Andersen's staffs recruited extensively in the south, especially Florida, and also in Texas. Smith said he will focus primarily on the Pac-12 states — Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona, Colorado and Utah — along with Hawaii.
• I'm glad to hear Smith say the cupboard of talent isn't bare at Oregon State. Depth is necessary, and immediate help on the defensive line is a must. But there is a young nucleus of players on which Smith's new staff can build.
"It's not that far away," Smith said. "I made mention of that today when I talked to the team. I firmly believe that. (At Washington), we game-planned for that defense, and there are some good players on that side. There are some good players on offense, too. There are some things that created some issues this season, and with the coaching change, it was an unsurmountable situation."