Now that he’s been formally introduced as the new head football coach at Kentucky State University, former Louisville head man John L. Smith says there’s no need to welcome him back to the Commonwealth.
“I really don’t think we’ve ever left,” Smith said Monday. “Our children are in Louisville. Our grandchildren are in Louisville. And my wife has actually maintained a home here. So me coming back, it really feels like we never left.”
Over a long, winding coaching path that has seen Smith serve as head man at Idaho, Utah State, Michigan State and Arkansas, his greatest success came in the five seasons (1998-2002) he was at Louisville.
Inheriting a 1-10 team after Ron Cooper was fired, Smith led the Cardinals to five-straight bowl games and a 41-21 overall record. His best year was 2001, when he coached U of L to an 11-2 season that ended with a 28-10 victory over Brigham Young in the Liberty Bowl.
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Once he left Louisville, Smith never replicated that success. In four years (2003-06) as head man at Michigan State, he went 22-26 and was fired. After Bobby Petrino’s self-destruction at Arkansas in 2012, Smith took over for one season and went 4-8.
The past three years, Smith has been coaching at Fort Lewis College, an NCAA Division II school in Durango, Colo.
Kentucky State President Raymond Burse proclaimed Smith “one of the best coaches in America. ... Today starts a new tradition for Thorobred football.”
KSU, a Division II program that competes in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, went 3-7 in 2015. The Thorobreds have not had a winning season since going 6-4 in 2011.
Smith says he sees big potential for football at Kentucky State. “Don’t you look at this as a program with a huge upside?” he asked those in attendance at his introductory news conference. “Well, I do, too.”
His three competitive goals at Kentucky State will be to send each senior class out as winners, compete for league titles and, eventually, a national championship, Smith said.
After he departed Arkansas, Smith said he went to work at Fort Lewis College because he had friends there in the administration. In a rebuilding situation, Smith led the school from 3-8 his first season to 4-7 to 7-4 this past year.
Coaching far from the bright lights of the SEC and Big Ten, Smith, 67, said he rediscovered what had motivated him to become a football coach in the first place.
“The reason you get into coaching, hopefully you can make a difference in a young man’s life,” Smith said. “Now, for 15 years or so, it turned into a little bit bigger deal — ‘How much money can I make now?’ Money has changed everything at Division I. It really has. It’s a business.”
At Kentucky State, a school without abundant athletics resources, a part of Smith’s responsibilities figures to be fund-raising.
“Part of (this job) is going to be going to the community,” Smith said. “And I am not afraid to ask: Can you support us, can you give us something?”
Smith arrived at Louisville in 1998, a year after Hal Mumme came to Kentucky. Together, that pass-happy coaching duo helped change the way football was played in the Commonwealth at all levels.
Though he said he would initially adjust to the talent on hand at KSU, Smith said he envisioned installing the same wide-open style of football in Frankfort.
“We are going to throw it around,” he said.