Fayetteville, AR, and Durango, CO, are separated by just under a thousand miles. That distance is but the smallest difference between last year and this year for John L. Smith, who went from coaching in the SEC at Arkansas to coaching Division II Fort Lewis College of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
Smith made $850,000 for his 10-month stint as the Razorbacks’ interim head coach, during which time he had access to the school’s gleaming football facilities. At Fort Lewis, he’s making $67,000 this season and is rumored to keep a locker in the same space as the school’s swimming and cross country teams.
At Arkansas, Smith was tasked with somehow ensuring that a dark-horse national title contender replete with NFL-caliber talent could live up to expectations following the scandalous dismissal of head coach Bobby Petrino. At Fort Lewis, he took over a program that went 0-10 last year and where the majority of the players are on partial scholarships.
With the Hogs (as well as his previous big-time coaching stops at Louisville and Michigan State), Smith had to attend his fair share of dog-and-pony-show luncheons where he would be dogged with questions from scores of media members. With the Skyhawks, he goes out of his way to have lunch with local fans at The Red Snapper the day before his team’s games.
It’s as far as one could get from major college football. And it sounds like John L. Smith is enjoying every minute of it.
“Our goals have been the same wherever I’ve been,” Smith said over the phone on Monday from Durango, a town near the state’s New Mexico border. “One is to send our seniors out as winners. Two is to win a conference championship. And three is to win a national championship.”
The latter two goals might are a stretch for a team predicted to finish last in the preseason RMAC coaches’ poll. The former, however, is very realistic after the Skyhawks improved to 2-2 on the season with a 38-28 triumph over Western New Mexico last Saturday. It was officially attended by 1,256 people – more than 70,000 less than the paid attendance (72,613) for last Saturday’s Texas A&M-Arkansas game at Razorback Stadium.
Just as important is that there’s a newfound pureness to Smith’s coaching. At Arkansas he had to deal with the politics that come with being an SEC head coach; at Fort Lewis it’s just football.
“What a better place to be,” Smith said. “It’s kind of refreshing now.”
2012 was anything but refreshing for Smith. In hindsight, Arkansas was ripe for a disappointing season despite its talented roster and preseason Top 10 ranking.
Not only were the Hogs forced to scramble and find a replacement for Petrino following “Motorcyclegate,” they were also breaking in first-year coordinators on both offense (Paul Petrino) and defense (Paul Haynes). When the injury bug bit the Hogs hard, it all came apart.
“These are guys that had been there before and now they’re on that ledge,” Smith said when referring to Petrino and Haynes. “You have to give them the opportunity to stay in place. There was just a lot of ‘new.’ And I think we were highly overrated, to be honest with you.”
The “whole tragedy of the thing,” as Smith refers to last year, clearly wore on him. Every time he met with the media to discuss Arkansas’ disappointing season, you had no idea what he would say or do next, as fans called for his head immediately following an embarrassing loss to Louisiana-Monroe in Week 2.
It only made it easier for fans to lampoon Smith for Arkansas’ failures. Making things all the more difficult were Smith’s well-publicized financial problems. He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection early in the season, listing over $40 million in debts stemming from land deals in Kentucky gone bad.
“That’s been something looming over my head for a couple years,” Smith said. “Even though you think, ‘I can devote all my time and thoughts to football,’ you can’t.”
When the Razorbacks’ woeful 4-8 season came to a merciful end, Smith was 64 years old and seemingly at the end of his coaching rope. That was when a conversation with a pair of longtime friends turned into a job offer way off the national college football radar.
When Smith was named Idaho’s head coach on New Year’s Eve 1988, it was then Vandals athletic director Gary Hunter (photo below) who hired him. In his six seasons at the school (1989-1994), Smith worked and became close friends with both Hunter and Dene Kay Thomas, an academic dean with the school.
Fast forward 25 years. Both Hunter and Thomas wound up at Fort Lewis – Hunter as the AD, Thomas as the school president. In one of his monthly conversations with Smith, Hunter made an off-the-cuff comment about Smith coaching at FLC, knowing of his and his wife Diana’s desire to get back out west (both of them are Idaho natives).
“Later on, as we continued to visit, it became more serious,” Smith said. “We spent some time with [Gary and Dene]. Dene Thomas said they wanted ‘good football.’ All three of us had the same vision of taking it one step at a time, moving in the right direction.”
Thus it came to pass that a month-and-a-half before his 10-month stint at Arkansas ended, Smith was heading to Durango – a place much more forgiving than the furnace in Fayetteville he had previously endured.
“Coming back to work with people who you love and care about and have been with before and know what they like, that was huge,” Smith said. “That was the biggest reason I came. You know that they’re going to have your back.”
So far, they have. They’re working with Smith to create newfound enthusiasm among boosters and local residents. Thomas has been hard at work with Fort Lewis’ board of trustees to give Smith and his staff the resources they need (monetary and otherwise) to make the Skyhawks competitive – on the field, on the recruiting trail and everywhere else.
Meanwhile, Smith and his wife have taken quite a shining to their new surroundings.
“My wife says, ‘You’ve dragged me all over this country, and this is the prettiest place you’ve ever taken me,’ ” Smith said. “She’s become so fond of Durango I’m not sure I can get her out of here.”
That being said, Smith wouldn’t offer a timetable of how long he plans on staying at Fort Lewis. For now, he wants to continue leading a successful turnaround season while planning the offseason recruiting schedule.
He’s also spending more time with his family – two of his three children are about to get married – and keeping his fingers crossed for a “good, positive ski season” (the man known for skydiving, running with the bulls and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro has always been the outdoorsy type). And after making a settlement in September, he’s been discharged of that aforementioned debt.
“I believe that life is going to take us where it’s going to take us,” Smith said. “But if I get some windows of opportunity, I’ll jump through it.”
It sounds as though he couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity that took him to Durango, CO – a place where he’s making the most of his shot at personal and professional rebirth.
Top & Bottom Right Photo Credit: Fort Lewis College Athletics