John L. Smith — a longtime NCAA Division I head coach with success at six different universities — will become head football coach at Fort Lewis College effective March 1, Skyhawk Director of Athletics Gary Hunter announced today.
Defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato will continue to oversee day-to-day operations until Smith arrives on campus.
Smith has coached at Idaho (1989-94), Utah State (1995-97), Louisville (1998-2002), Michigan State (2003-06), Weber State (during the 2011-12 offseason) and, most recently, Arkansas (2012). In 19 seasons as a head coach, his teams have compiled a 136-94 record (.591) and advanced to seven bowl games. Smith's teams have won six conference championships, including Big Sky titles at Idaho (1989, 1992), Big West crowns at Utah State (1996, 1997) and Conference USA trophies at Louisville (2000, 2001).
Smith was chosen as the Big Ten Coach of the Year at Michigan State in 2003.
Skyhawk Coaches Chat
Join us this Tuesday in the Fort Lewis College Ballroom on the Fort Lewis College Campus from 5:00-7:00pm to meet, greet, discuss, socialize, and interact with the Fort Lewis College Athletic Coaching Staff. Coach John L. Smith will be introduced to the campus and Durango communities. Bring friends, family, fun! There will be a Cash Bar with light appetizers being provided by Sodexo Catering. RSVPs to Wayne Barger would be appreciated.
“We are extremely fortunate to have a coach with the tremendous background and experience that John L. brings to Fort Lewis College,” said Hunter.
The second-year FLC athletic director said the hiring proves the college's commitment to fielding a successful football program, both on and off the field.
“Fort Lewis College is making a commitment to football,” said Hunter. “Many of our other programs have reached the pinnacle of success at the national and regional levels. We want our football alumni and fans to have the opportunity to enjoy that same success.”
Hunter said that Smith is a proven winner, not just on the gridiron, but in terms of the academic success of his student-athletes.
“Not only has Coach Smith had outstanding success on the field, but he has always stressed the importance of academics and community and campus involvement,” said Hunter. “President Dene Kay Thomas was instrumental in assisting us set up an academic advising and support unit at the University of Idaho when she was associate dean there, and developed a close working relationship with John L. That was a key in getting him to Fort Lewis College.”
The new Skyhawk skipper — the 12th head football coach in FLC history — agreed with Hunter.
“I first looked at Fort Lewis College because of two people: Dene Thomas — who I think the world of and is the best person ever that I could work for — and Gary Hunter, who was my first athletic director at Idaho and is a true friend,” said Smith. “I know the two of them are going to do everything possible to make FLC football as good as we can make it.”
“I am thrilled!” said President Thomas. “John L. and I had a good working relationship at UI, cooperating on selection and advising of the student-athletes. I am very excited to have John L. here at FLC. He is a great coach and a good friend.”
Smith, who has more than 40 years of NCAA Division I coaching experience including assistant coaching stints at Weber State (1971), Montana (1972-76), Nevada (1977-81), Idaho (1982-85), Wyoming (1986), Washington State (1987-88) and Arkansas (2009-11), welcomed the opportunity to get back to his coaching roots at Fort Lewis.
“I'm very excited to actually coach for the real reasons you get into coaching — to make a difference in the kids' lives and help them get an education,” he said. “At this point in my career, to get back and coach for the real reasons … not to get somebody to the NFL, but to coach kids who want to play the game and get an education. I'm just thankful that they've provided me the opportunity to do this.”
Smith sees many challenges in turning around a program that went 0-10 in 2012 and has six straight losing seasons. In fact, in 50 years as a four-year college, Fort Lewis has posted winning records just 10 times.
“To me, it's a situation where we're going to have to work hard to try and get the excitement up, get the program going in the right direction, win some games and graduate our kids,” he said.
Returning to the Rocky Mountains was also important to Smith, who is an avid outdoorsman. “I'm looking forward to it and my wife is looking forward to it,” he said. “Getting back to the mountains is very important to me. Every year after having moved (east), you have to go and find your mountain fix.”
Smith has climbed the 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, para-glided in Switzerland, flown a T-38 Talon jet trainer in Texas and skydived in Indiana.
Smith will also be reunited with Rifilato, one of his former players and assistant coaches at Fort Lewis.
“He's one of my all-time greatest player/friends,” said Smith. “We've kept in touch on a weekly or monthly basis in all of our years.”
“He's a great player's coach,” said Rifilato, who played for Smith in 1983 and 1984 at the University of Idaho, earning the Vandals' Defensive MVP award. Rifilato was also the director of football operations under Smith at Louisville in 2002.
Smith replaces Cesar Rivas-Sandoval as head coach of the Skyhawks. Rivas-Sandoval announced his resignation as head coach a week ago. Past FLC head coaches include Rivas-Sandoval (2010-12, 6-25), Rifilato (2004-09, 22-41), Todd Throckmorton (2000-03, 11-33), Todd Wash (1996-99, 11-31), Dave Preszler (1994-95, 6-15), Kevin Donnalley (1992-93, 2-18), Sheldon Keresey (1988-91, 6-32), Bill Cooke (1984-87, 20-16-1), Gary Barnett (1982-83, 8-11-1), Jay McNitt (1971-81, 46-56-1) and Lou Cullen (1963-70, 20-49).
Three other men served brief stints as head coach or interim head coach, but accepted other assignments prior to coaching a game at Fort Lewis: Casey “Gus” Bradley and Robert Prince between the 1995 and '96 seasons and Johnny Cox between the 1999 and 2000 seasons. All three of those coaches have enjoyed lengthy careers in the NFL, with Bradley currently serving as defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks.
Smith graduated from Weber State in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in physical education. He played quarterback and linebacker for the Wildcats from 1967-70 before joining their staff as a graduate assistant for the 1971 season. He received his master's degree in physical education from Montana in 1974.
A native of Idaho Falls, Idaho, Smith married the former Diana Flora on August 15, 1970. They have three children: Nicholas, Kayse and Sam. Smith is also the uncle of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith.
“We truly believe that John L. and Diana Smith will be a perfect fit for the Fort Lewis College family and Durango community,” said Hunter.