‘The most fun I ever had in coaching’: Former Idaho football coach John L. Smith inducted into Vandals Hall of Fame
Nov. 5, 2022 Updated Sat., Nov. 5, 2022 at 4:06 p.m.
Former Idaho coach John L. Smith talks to the current Vandals at Thursday’s practice in Moscow, Idaho. (Courtesy Idaho Athletics)
MOSCOW, Idaho – In the early 1980s, the University of Idaho athletics department collected John Smiths like people collect beanie babies or baseball cards.
There was the former baseball coach and current equipment manager and two assistant football coaches all with the same name. To direct inquiries to the right Smith, department secretaries took to asking, “Do you want John G., John Gregg or John L.?”
One of them went on to become the Vandals’ head football coach in 1989. He posted a 53-21 record in six seasons, won two Big Sky Conference championships, made five playoff appearances and advanced to the national semifinals in 1993, and developed two Walter Payton Award winners in quarterbacks John Friesz in 1989 and Doug Nussmeier in 1993. That Smith later coached Utah State, Louisville, Michigan State, Weber State briefly where he went through spring football with the Wildcats, Arkansas, Fort Lewis (Colorado) College and Kentucky State.
This long career wound its way back to where Smith, 73, acquired what has become a lifelong moniker.
“Now my first name is John L.,” said Smith, who was inducted into the UI Athletics Hall of Fame Friday.
Smith went in with a class that includes the 2005 women’s cross country team, former basketball star Red Morrison, track and field All-America Hannah Kiser, All-Western Athletic Conference volleyball player Haley Janicek, football All-America Mike Iupati and longtime head athletics trainer Barrie Steele.
The L. has served him well.
“I say it stands for Latah (the county where the UI is located), Louisville or Lansing (home of Michigan State),” Smith said.
Wry humor peppered Smith’s tenure with the Vandals.
“It was the most fun I ever had in coaching,” Smith said of leading Idaho.
“We had great kids. Coaching those kids was special. They loved and cared about each other. We would bust our butt every day. We worked hard, so the games were easy. It kind of helped having two Walter Payton winners, too. That was fun as well. Those guys won a lot of games.”
Except for some football-related radio commentary, Smith is mostly retired – happily so, he says – near Louisville, Kentucky.
On his return to Idaho to accept his award, however, he dropped in on football practice, addressed the team and visited with current Vandals coach Jason Eck.
From a vantage in the Kibbie Dome seats, Smith watched the Vandals do a walk-through before their game with Eastern Washington Saturday, and it stirred enduring memories.
“The thing I miss is that on-field coaching with the kids,” he said. “This is the best part of every day.”
Smith, who worked for another hall of famer, Dennis Erickson, at Idaho, followed Erickson to Washington State, where Smith was Erickson’s defensive coordinator before becoming Idaho’s head coach. In one of the Cougars’ greatest wins, Smith said he learned something that became part of his coaching strategy for the rest of his career. In 1988, the Cougars beat No. 1-ranked UCLA 34-30 on the road.
With the game on the line and the Bruins driving, Smith told Erickson he wanted to change the angle of a stunt WSU linebacker Bob O’Neal was using to attack UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman.
“I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ ” Smith said of Erickson. “He looked at me and said, ‘That’s what I pay you for.’ That has been my philosophy ever since. Let the coaches coach.”
O’Neal put a thunderous hit on Aikman on third down, causing an incomplete pass. A rattled Aikman threw another incompletion on fourth down, and the Cougars won.
Smith thinks the job he had at Idaho three decades ago is pretty much the same job Eck has now, with one notable exception: the transfer portal.
“The difference is if you have special kids, like Friesz or Nussmeier, today you have to recruit those kids in your locker room to make sure they stay here. If you have a special freshman quarterback, you know somebody is going to recruit them.”
But managing scholarship money is as important now as it was when he was at Idaho, Smith says.
“It is an important thing that people are unaware of. How do you take what you have in money and make it a third bigger than what you’ve got?” he said.
It’s a talent that might have caught Idaho’s notice when Eck applied, Smith surmises, since Eck came from the likes of less than generously funded programs at South Dakota State University and Minnesota State Mankato.
While the principle of canny money management applies, however, inflation has changed the practice of it. Smith said he gave another Idaho Hall of Famer, former running back Joel Thomas, his start in coaching.
Thomas is the running backs coach for the NFL New Orleans Saints. But in 2000, he was fresh off a graduate assistantship at Purdue, and Smith hired Thomas to his first full-time coaching job at Louisville. The inducement that sealed the deal for Thomas, Smith insists, was a supply of pencils
Smith has returned to Idaho several times since he left the Vandals. On this most recent trip back for the induction, he enjoyed visiting old haunts in Moscow, Coeur d’Alene and McCall, where his family used to ski, and where even now he wistfully wishes he could settle.
Of course, he also enjoyed renewing ties with former Vandals players and coaches.
Such long and sturdy relationships are at the heart of his return. They were the through line for all his coaching career and began at the place where Smith acquired an L.
What Smith was seeing from the Kibbie Dome stands as he watched practice reminded him of his Vandals teams.
“We just kept asking them for more, and as long as they believed in us, they gave it,” he said. “Football is football. If (the players) know you love and care about them, they will do anything. But they don’t care what you know if they don’t know that you care.”
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