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April 25, 2012

Memories...

John L. Smith's return to Arkansas and this piece for USA Today has them flooding back.

    And yes, just to be clear, the "beat writer" mentioned is ME. I wasn't sure exactly how to handle that because this wasn't exactly a column. I was asked to write an analysis of what fans and media can expect of John L. as a public figure. In a news story, if a reporter sees something that becomes part of the story, it's "a State Journal reporter witnessed..." because there's no first-person writing in a news story. In a column, you write in first person (or second person, as I tend to do often. Or both, as I just did). Anyway, I wrote it in newsstoryian and figured I'd let the USA Today people figure it out. They're quite aware that I was the beat writer. It's why I was asked to do this.

    Smith was introduced today and was asked if this can be redemption for what happened at MSU. He responded: "Yes. The answer is yes."

    That made me wonder exactly how Smith thinks back on his time in East Lansing. As said countless times, he did a lot of good things and I think the staff he brought with him had a chance to win a lot of games in the Big Ten. But he lost some key people, starting when Steve Stripling hopped to Ann Arbor. He lost some gut-wrenching games. Two that could have really established him, 2004 at Michigan and 2005 at Ohio State. And one that pretty much did him in, 2006 vs. Notre Dame.  By then, all the quirky behavior that was so charming early in his tenure had worn on people, and it appeared that MSU was wearing on him. Then consider Diana Smith's health issues and the strain that must have created. I wonder if Smith would change anything significantly about what he did at MSU, and if he thinks one decision or one outcome in particular might have changed the outcome of his tenure.

    Also, I do regret that things ended so badly between us. Smith is, indeed, a grudge holder -- that was very evident on that day in Champaign, with MSU still passing into the end zone long after the game was in hand. Then,  Smith shrugging afterward when asked about running up the score. Not our problem, he said. Have we mentioned the Dave Baldwin double middles here before? Yes, yes we have. Back in the spring of '05, Smith was asked if Jim Tressel asked permission to talk with Paul Haynes, who left MSU to join the Ohio State staff. He nodded. He was asked if Lloyd Carr asked permission to speak with Stripling. He nodded. He was asked if Ron Zook asked to speak with Reggie Mitchell.

    No nod. Just silence and a sarcastic smile. Reporters laughed. The point was made. Later, revenge was had. And a year after that, the Zooker got Smith back at MSU, handing him the loss that really killed his chances. Just to be clear for the last time, Smith performed the self slap after that game, in reference to Charlie Weis, who a week earlier lied about Matt Trannon hitting him on the sideline, drawing offsetting personal fouls on a critical play in that game. A lot of people think it came right after the Notre Dame game because it was inspired by the Notre Dame game. But no.

    Anyway, it was amazing that Smith managed to essentially make it through an entire season without answering a question from me or our columnist at the time, Todd Schulz. It was pretty upsetting at first, though it became kind of funny later. And we eventually stopped asking -- why waste the time of the other media? Sometimes we'd throw out questions for others to ask before Smith got into the room. I can't say I remember exactly why Smith stopped responding to Schulz. I suppose it was an accumulation of issues. Which is funny because Todd had twice written columns late in Smith's tenure essentially saying he thought he was going to make it through the tough times and win at MSU.

    As for me, I definitely earned some of Smith's scorn. The Ferguson-related piece mentioned in the column was a big thing. We were fine before that, but I told John Lewandowski I wanted to do a story on the program under Smith (not untrue but intentionally vague) and got a one-on-one with Smith. I had already spoken with Ferguson, who was more than eager to talk about how close he and Smith had become, how he was now hiring MSU players for summer jobs and how he was "back inside" the football program. To me, this was significant because Smith had successfully fended off Ferguson early in his tenure. Now the pressure was mounting. Was this the act of a desperate man? Or just a change of heart on Ferguson? It was definitely worth exploring.

    Smith's enemies (many at the time would tell you Ferguson still resided in that camp) were growing stronger and everyone knew the 2006 season was going to be crucial. I asked Smith about a few things people were spreading about him -- including some stuff in Rob Parker's "peeps and moles" (or whatever) column -- and he was pretty candid. He talked about getting into some words with a drunken alum at a function in Florida. I thought it was an interesting story. He wasn't quite as high on it.

    But it wasn't until after the first game of the season that he stopped responding to questions. On that day, our GameDay section was headlined "Blowout Guide" because MSU was hosting Idaho. Essentially, the idea for the story was to give fans things they can watch and conclusions they can draw, even in a game that is a physical mismatch. Again, I liked the idea. Again, he didn't. His history with Idaho was no doubt a factor. After MSU muddled through a 27-17 win, Smith said "only an idiot" would expect that game to be a blowout, and he also referred to us as "the local Bugle."

    Now that's some funny stuff. But all questions from there were greeted with a blank stare and a point to another questioner. Now that's some impressive grudge holding. That season got nasty for him and then he was done. And I swear, I took no pleasure in it. Despite the way things got bad between us, I always thought he was a pretty good guy. He seemed like a good husband and father. Most of the players who came through the Duffy building seemed to like him. Yes, some of those who later played for Dantonio contrasted the two coaching regimes in ways that were not flattering to Smith's, but that's going to happen when you go from losing to winning.

    The opinions of MSU fans vary on Smith. Mine is the same as it was on the day he was fired. It was not a bad hire, it was a hire that didn't work out. And it came pretty close to working out -- at least to some extent. He's a pretty good coach who got some things done at MSU and left a program with a decent infrastructure for Mark Dantonio. It just needed more players and a return to the kind of football that has defined its most successful eras. And now Smith has one more shot in the college football spotlight. Honestly, wouldn't it be kind of cool to see him make the most of it?

 

 

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Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter
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