Discover more from Bald Faced Truth by John Canzano
Canzano: Bet against Jonathan Smith at your own risk
Oregon State coach chasing a big season.
CORVALLIS — I cued up Jonathan Smith’s introductory news conference this week. He wore a white button-up dress shirt, a burnt-orange tie, and a gray suit. But it’s what the Oregon State football coach said that afternoon in December 2017 that I’m thinking about today.
“I know how to sell this place,” Smith said. “I’ve lived it. I’ve walked those dorm halls. I’ve gone to class on this campus. I’ve worked out in this building.”
Smith lived in Callahan Hall as a freshman. He rode his bicycle to class. Once in a while, the walk-on football player would visit his grandmother, who lived less than a mile from campus.
He’d grown up in Southern California, and rooted for USC. Last September, at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Beavers’ coach wandered over to me on the sideline before OSU’s game against the Trojans. He turned and pointed to a row of seats near midfield, just above USC’s bench.
“We used to sit right up there when I was a kid,” he said.
Oregon State pile-drove USC, 45-27, over the next few hours. It wasn’t just the score that people took notice of, though. It was the manner in which the Beavers did it. They rushed for 322 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
OSU didn’t just beat the Trojans.
It broke them.
I asked one of the long-time football support staffers last season what Smith is like behind closed doors. Is he more like ex-coach Mike Riley? Or more like resident gunslinger Dennis Erickson? The staffer didn’t hesitate.
“He’s Erickson,” came the answer.
I figured that out myself after last season’s USC win. I’d predicted a 31-30 OSU victory a few days before the game. Smith never said a word about it. I wasn’t even sure he was aware. But when the coach saw me on the field after the game, Smith stopped and cried out, “Hey!”
Then, the Beavers’ coach pointed up at Oregon State’s “45” points on the scoreboard and said, “Come on, man. Look at that. You only had us winning by one point.”
When Smith was hired, Oregon State was coming off one of the most disappointing football seasons in school history. Coach Gary Andersen quit, midseason. The team finished 1-11. The season-ticket base shrunk to just 17,777 tickets. Fans were tuned out.
Four seasons later, Smith is coming off a bowl appearance and a seven-win campaign. He now finds himself on the cusp of the most significant opener of his head coaching career. OSU will suit up Saturday night at Reser Stadium against Boise State as a 2.5-point favorite. Stadium capacity is reduced to 26,407 this season because of the renovation. The game will be sold out.
Nick Aliotti, former Oregon Ducks’ defensive coordinator, watched the Beavers practice last week. The veteran Pac-12 Network analyst said of the OSU defense, “I like what I saw. They are getting bigger and better.”
Smith and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren run the offense. Former OSU linebacker Trent Bray now calls the defense. We’ve all come to expect OSU to run the ball well, be creative in the passing game and score points. If the Beavers can stop opposing offenses this season — who’s beating them?
Quarterback Chance Nolan didn’t get a vote in the preseason all-conference poll. The relatively unheralded trio of Deshaun Fenwick, Trey Lowe and Damien Martinez will get the carries at running back. Seventh-year senior and captain Jaydon Grant anchors an opportunistic defensive backfield.
“There isn’t a superstar,” said Shawn Schoeffler, OSU’s assistant athletic director. “It’s a close team with a lot of very good players who have confidence they can do something special this year.”
Oregon State players vote on who should be team captain. This season, they selected six captains, including Grant. But 27 players received at least one vote. It’s a remarkable testament to the respect in the locker room.
Bookmakers set Oregon State’s over/under win total at 5.5 victories. Smith arrived at Pac-12 Media Day last month and I asked him how surprising the Beavers might be. Could they win seven games again? Eight? He said, “We want to win all 12 and go to Las Vegas and play for the conference championship.”
Smith sure has come a long way, hasn’t he?
It’s why I went back and watched that introductory news conference this week. During his first public appearance as coach, Smith talked about his deep roots at OSU. He spoke about being able to sell recruits on the journey he’d enjoyed in leading the Beavers to a Fiesta Bowl.
Steve Fenk, the now-retired OSU sports information director, conducted the news conference that day in 2017. He remembers, “People were pretty excited.”
Legendary baseball coach Pat Casey grew up on a farm in Newberg. Women’s basketball coach Scott Rueck was born in Hillsboro. And ex-football coach Mike Riley grew up in Corvallis and painted Reser Stadium during the summer as a teenager. Athletic department staff had talked for a while about how the most successful Oregon State coaches had close ties to the region.
Athletic director Scott Barnes spoke during the news conference about the hiring process. Then-university president Ed Ray vowed that any opponent who didn’t bring their “A-game, would get their butt handed to them.” Then came Smith, armed with a stack of notes. He never really looked at them.
“He was calm and really prepared,” Fenk said. “There was nothing ‘big time’ about him. He didn’t act like he knew everything and there was zero arrogance.”
Smith is facing an important season. He went 6-0 at home last season. But was 1-6 away from Reser Stadium. There are still steps to take. Still, improvements to make. Progress is a perpetually moving target in football. The Beavers haven’t won eight or more games since Mike Riley (9-4) in 2012.
Smith was right. He knew how to sell the place. Now, he gets a chance to take it all the way home.
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