EAST LANSING — He was outside the press conference, shaking the shoulders of a friend, patting him on the back … just having a good ol’ time.
John L. Smith, the savior of the 2002 train wreck that was Michigan State football, grabbed a glass of grape juice, went up to the podium and asked all new media that come with the Michigan-Michigan State game to introduce themselves personally.
He quietly said he was joking, threw on his patented grin and quickly went into his analysis of the previous week.
“We had a good week last week — we beat B-Y-E, and we got healthy,” Smith said.
There aren’t many coaches out there like Smith. He carries around the professionalism and fire of any coach, yet exudes a childish quality — a quality needed when playing any kids’ game.
But ask him something unintelligent, and “Now that’s a stupid question” will pop out of his mouth in a non-childish tone. While he might belittle the question, though, he still answers it instead of hiding behind a wall of insults and “no comments.”
In fact, Smith rarely hides behind anything. He’s not a sugar-coater.
“He just sat us down,” said Michigan State running back Tyrell Dortch of Smith’s first meeting with the team. “His voice was at a high level, but he wasn’t yelling, he was just being honest. That was basically it. We talked about where we were at and where we want to be.”
When Smith was hired, the Spartans were at a level where just showing up to play hard would have been accepted and made up for the lack of effort/off-the-field troubles last season.
“I was very angry at the team last year,” said Dortch, who was out all last season with a broken leg. “I didn’t know what the hell was going on. There were just situations where we weren’t mentally there.
“Can’t blame (the fans for booing). They paid money to watch the team perform well. When we lose, they at least want to see us play hard, and from what I saw last year, if I was a fan, I’d be mad, too. I don’t think we were giving them Michigan State football last year.”
So the search began to find a replacement for the fired Bobby Williams.
Defensive guru Marvin Lewis was rumored to be offered the job, but he ended up with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Michigan State began to scramble as it was heading into the final months of the recruiting season.
Then-Louisville coach John L. Smith was announced with little fanfare, but now he’s leading the biggest party in the Big Ten.
And it’s no secret why.
Jeff Smoker is hardly trying to force bombs down the field to Charles Rogers, and Smith has his team believing in his system.
“I thought there were going to be guys still hanging on to coach Williams,” Dortch said. “I was kind of frightened that might happen. But everyone seems to like the coaches and have good relationships with the coaches. It’s a great situation around here.
“We do workouts more as a team now … more unity.”
Smith explained loyalty to his system in the simplest terms: There were those who would jump on his bandwagon right away, those who would be indifferent and those who would be loyal to Williams’ style of ball no matter what happened. Smith knew his job was to convince those in the middle to believe in him.
It’s like Hall of Fame baseball manager Casey Stengel used to say: Keep the five players that hate you away from the five who are undecided.
At 7-1, it is safe to say that Smith’s mission has been accomplished. His spread offense has … well, spread like his offense. Even his running backs enjoy using it — and they aren’t running any more.
“In my situation I love it a lot,” Dortch said. “Coming of a leg injury, it takes a lot of wear and tear off me. I’ve seen what T.J. (Duckett) went through. He had to fight to get through Sunday mornings cause he couldn’t move. Mondays and Tuesdays he’d be jogging, but by Wednesday he’d be alright. He was never really recovered from the bruises from the wear and tear of the Big Ten. But having a spread offense can take a lot off me.”
It’s not only made Dortch’s life easier, but its success has removed any dark clouds that were looming over the team after last season.
“What he’s done is what we all have to do,” Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo said. “Number one, he’s got the guys a lot more disciplined. As the year has gone on, I think the penalties (have gone down). He’s gotten them to believe, which is half the key. He’s got his best players to play their best. As I would look at who I think his best players are, I think they’re playing at a high level. If your best players aren’t playing at their high level, you can’t compete for a championship.”
Izzo knows a thing or two about championship ball. He’s won a national title and four Big Ten titles since the last time Michigan State went to the Rose Bowl.
So is Smith ready to join Izzo as a championship coach in his first season?
Now that’s not a dumb question.