Time will tell if Jonathon Smith can deliver Big Ten championships at Michigan State, but history tells us he is a builder, leader and winner in the likeness of Mark Dantonio.
Let’s remember, Dantonio “turned around” the fortunes of Spartan Football after the dreadful 7-year collapse caused by ill-fated coaching tenures of Bobby Williams and John L. Smith.
For his part, Jonathon Smith turned around historically bad football programs at Oregon State both as a player and as a Head Football Coach and now he brings those turnaround credentials to Michigan State.
Let’s reflect upon Jonathon Smith as player and coach.
Certified “turnaround” credentials.
Let’s start as a player.
Smith “walked on” as QB at Oregon State in 1998 and thereby walked into a bona fide quagmire.
Prior to “walking on”, Oregon State hadn’t posted a winning season since 1970 (nearly 30 years before Smith arrived as a walk-on).
I won’t bother to chronicle details of Oregon State’s dreadful W/L record but it’s notable from 1970 to 1998, Oregon State had 6 head coaches and posted seven miserable 1-win seasons, accompanied by 8 equally dismal seasons with just 2 wins.
Oregon State Football was dreadful.
Only players desperate to play college football were willing to commit to Oregon State in those years, yet Smith had the audacity to take the baton, accept the challenge and attempt to turnaround a program that had floundered for decades.
To his credit, Smith became a first-year starter and posted a 5-6 record, and while 5-6 was a far cry from championship caliber, nevertheless it was Oregon State’s first 5-win season in 27 years.
The following season, Dennis Erickson, who later distinguished himself as Head Coach in college and NFL, replaced Mike Riley as Head Coach at Oregon State and commenced a turnaround with Smith as his QB.
In 1999, Erickson with Smith as QB posted a solid 7-5 season: by all measures it was a modest W/L record nevertheless it was Oregon State’s first winning season in 29 years.
Then in 2000, Erickson and Smith continued their “turnaround” and compiled an improbable 11-1 W/L record, finished #4 in the land, and won OSU’s first PAC 10 (then PAC 10) Championship in 36 years.
The dramatic “turnaround” at Oregon State proved Jonathon Smith had skills as a winner and on-field leader.
After Smith graduated from Oregon State in 2002 he embarked upon a 16-year career as an assistant coach at ever more challenging jobs; first as QB coach at Idaho from 2004 to 2009: then O-Coordinator & QB coach at Montana from 2010 to 2011. (Idaho and Montana are both member schools of Big Sky Conference in FCS).
Smith’s coaching odyssey continued as QB coach at Boise State from 2012 to 2013; and finally Smith became Offensive Coordinator and QB coach at Washington from 2014 to 2017 whereby UW earned a #4 ranking in 2016 as well as an invitation to the CFP with Smith calling Offensive signals.
Yet, while Smith was earning his stripes as an assistant coach, Oregon State Football was sliding back into the abyss posting 7 losing seasons in 16 years.
In fact, the Beavers posted a deplorable 7-29 (19% W/L record) from 2015 to 2017 yet into that breach Smith returned to Oregon State as its Head Football Coach in 2018.
No coach in the land wanted the Oregon State job, but Smith knew the landscape and accepted the challenge.
Given the collapse of Oregon State Football between Smith’s tenure as player and his return as Head Coach, the first few years were exceedingly challenging, then Smith got traction and flipped the switch posting three consecutive winning seasons from 2021 to 2023 (7-6; 10-3; and 8-4) or 25-13 (66%) overall.
In fact, in 2022, Oregon State posted a solid 10-3 record including victories vs Boise State, Stanford, Oregon and capped off the season with a Bowl Victory vs Florida.
So, Smith proved his positive impact as player and coach and now Smith brings his “turnaround” credentials to Michigan State.
On field success starts with building a successful coaching staff.
For his part, Jonathon Smith will bring most of an established and competent coaching staff from Oregon State, something Mel Tucker was unable to bring to Michigan State.
As you recall, rather than bringing a championship caliber coaching staff to Michigan State, Tucker scrambled to assemble a staff and seemingly defaulted to hiring coaches with unremarkable profiles, from marginal programs.
Let’s remember, Harlon Barnett was Defensive Coordinator at Florida State in 2018 and 2019 yet the entire staff got fired for posting “back to back” losing seasons, nevertheless Barnett was reclaimed by Tucker and hired at Michigan State in 2020.
Meanwhile, Jay Johnson, Offensive Coordinator was a member of an entire coaching staff at Minnesota that got fired in 2016. He was unemployed as an on-field coach in 2017-2018, then got reclaimed by Tucker at Colorado in 2019 where he compiled a losing record as OC on Tucker’s staff. Thereafter, Tucker brought Johnson and his sketchy credentials to Michigan State in 2020.
Of course we can’t forget Chris Kapilovic, O-Line Coach and Run Game Coordinator who was also on Tucker’s losing staff at Colorado and got $1Mn to ply his losing concepts for Tucker at Michigan State.
So there you have it, the preceding is a snapshot of Tucker’s inept organizational building: hardly a recipe for success.
Certainly, none of Tucker’s coaches at Michigan State distinguished themselves as Championship caliber coaches anywhere or at anytime.
Meanwhile, Smith brings a staff of game ready assistant coaches:
Contrary to Tucker, Smith will bring a solid staff of coaches from Oregon State all of whom have distinguished themselves as position coaches with exceptional skills scouting, evaluating talent and recruiting.
Smith’s assistants also demonstrated impeccable skills in player development as well as earning their stripes in gameday coaching.
There are several positions yet to fill including Defensive Coordinator, nevertheless the core of Smith’s staff is complete and here is a snapshot:
- Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach…Brian Lindgren,
- Offensive line coach & Run Game Coordinator…Jim Michalczik,
- Running backs coach…Keith Bhonapha,
- Tight ends coach…Brian Wozniak
- Wide Receiver Coach…TBD
Defensive Staff & Special Teams:
- Defensive Coordinator…TBD
- Defensive Line Coach…Legi Suiaunoa
- Linebacker Coach…TBD
- Defensive secondary coach…Blue Adams.
- Special Teams Coach…TBD
Bringing an established staff of assistant coaches is exceedingly meaningful because Jonathon Smith compiled an impressive record at Oregon State underscored by impressive stats.
Immediately below are comparative averages between Jonathon Smith’s staff compared to Mel Tucker’s staff over the past 3-years (2021-2023):
- Total Offense: Oregon State 417…Michigan State 357
- Rush Offense: Oregon State 197…Michigan State 126
- Score Offense: Oregon State 32…Michigan State 24
- Total Defense: Oregon State yielded 353 YPG…Michigan State 416 YPG
- Rush Defense: Oregon State yielded 119 YPG…Michigan State 149 YPG
- Score Defense: Oregon State yielded 23 PPG…Michigan State 27 PPG
The preceding stats illustrate a net difference of 123 yards and 12 points per game in favor of Jonathon Smith vs Mel Tucker.
It’s a winning differential in favor of Jonathon Smith.
Of course, on field stats are illustrated in Wins and Losses and in PAC 12 competition over the past 3 seasons, Oregon State posted a fundamentally solid 17-10 record while Michigan State posted a dismal 12-15 record vs Big Ten opponents.
At the bottom line:
Jonathon Smith is Dantonio-esque.
In fact, Smith started by winning his introductory press conference: no clever coaching clichés, just straight talk.
That may sound meaningless, but success is all about organizational planning and coherent communication, and Jonathon Smith articulated an abundance of those qualities when he was introduced at Michigan State.
Moreover, when compared to Michigan State’s former disgraced head football coach the difference couldn’t be any greater given Tucker’s propensity for platitudes, convoluted communication, meaningless mantras, and lack of on-field success.
Let’s make this clear: with an abundance of misguided pomposity, Mel Tucker “vowed to change the culture” at Michigan State and thereby turned Michigan State Football into a full-blown reclamation project…a patch work of players guided by inept coaches.
That means, there are virtually “no” players or coaches worth saving or salvaging, and that translates to starting from scratch.
Additionally, it means the program needs to be in the hands of someone who “…has been there and done that”…and that just happens to be Jonathon Smith.
Only time will tell if Jonathon Smith can deliver Big Ten championships at Michigan State, but history tells us he is a builder, a leader and a winner in the likeness of Mark Dantonio…and that’s a good thing.
And may the mistakes of hiring a coach such as Mel Tucker be remembered and never revisited.
Thank you for reading.