Canzano: Eyes on 'The House That Jonathan Smith Built'
Oregon State is 6-2... and not finished.
Naji Saker showed up on Saturday night with his Nikon Z9 camera and wide-angle lens. With the skies darkened above Reser Stadium and the sun setting, the photographer positioned himself on the ground in the corner of the end zone and snapped a breathtaking photo.
I’m titling it: “The House That Jonathan Smith Built.”
Oregon State beat Colorado 42-9 on Saturday. The Beavers are 6-2. Saker was there on assignment, shooting a photo gallery of the Pac-12 football game. As much as I’d love to pore over the box score today, I can’t take my eyes off that photograph.
Same for Smith’s football program right now.
It’s October and the Beavers are bowl eligible. Five years ago this same month, head coach Gary Andersen walked into his athletic director’s office and threw in the keys. Andersen was so unhappy that he gave back $12.6 million so he didn’t have to be OSU’s football coach for one day longer.
Did the program have enough resources?
Was it a bad job?
Six weeks later, Scott Barnes, that same AD, met Smith in a downtown-Seattle hotel suite. Beau Baldwin and Jim McElwain both jockeyed for interviews. So did some others. But the former OSU quarterback and 2001 Fiesta Bowl MVP was the target.
“Jonathan wore his Fiesta Bowl ring to the interview,” Barnes told me on Sunday morning. “He had a quiet, poised confidence about him that is so evident now as well.”
Smith’s first season ended with a 2-10 record. It feels so far away today. Over the years, the coach’s messaging has shifted. At first, he didn’t talk about winning games. The coach desperately wanted to get four competitive quarters from his players. It’s a stark contrast to the comments Smith made in July, as season No. 5 approached.
Remember, Smith started from a standstill. He built his staff, and improved the roster. OSU invested more dollars and resources, too. In Smith’s four seasons, the Beavers evolved from inept… to competent… to competitive… and in 2021, Smith’s program posted a 7-6 record and made a bowl game.
“What now?” I asked him last July.
Smith shot back: “We want to win all 12 and go to Las Vegas and play for the conference championship.”
I almost fell out of my chair. But then I remembered we’re talking about the guy who made his debut for Oregon State on a cold, miserable day at Husky Stadium in 1998. Smith, a walk-on, threw for 469 yards in two and a half quarters.
Mike Rich, the Hollywood screenwriter, is a friend of mine. He’s a die-hard Beavers fan, donor and season-ticket holder. You know Rich’s work. He wrote the scripts for “Finding Forrester,” “Secretariat,” “The Rookie” and “Miracle,” among others.
Rich told me once: “You know me, John, I love underdog stories. I made a living on underdog stories... but you know, as much as I love an underdog story, I love it most when they stop being underdogs.”
That’s Smith right now.
Oregon State was favored by 24 points on Saturday night. Freshman running back Damien Martinez rushed for 178 yards and three touchdowns. Quarterback Ben Gulbranson, a third-year freshman thrown into duty after a neck injury to Chance Nolan, tossed two TD passes.
Yet, I keep coming back to that photograph.
The photographer, Saker, told me: “I got super low and shot up. The ‘golden hour’ lit up the stands so well. It was beautiful and the sky made it so dramatic.”
It’s a terrific shot. The lights are on. The setting sun is shining on the east-side grandstand. The stadium is at capacity: 26,407. The west side of the stadium remains under construction, but already has 99 percent of the premium seating sold.
I have to think that visiting teams show up, stare across the field at a screaming sea of orange and black, and feel like they’re up against far more than a football team. The Beavers are 9-1 at Reser Stadium in the last two seasons.
Two Saturdays ago, Washington State lost at Reser Stadium 24-10. In the days before the game, WSU head coach Jake Dickert called some friends on USC’s coaching staff to ask what Reser Stadium’s environment was like. The Trojans escaped with a 17-14 win earlier this season.
“Even with a half stadium,” Dickert told me, “USC said it had to go with silent counts and it was loud.”
Reser Stadium opened as “Parker Stadium” in 1953. Since then, Oregon State has had 11 full-time head football coaches work there. When he was a kid, ex-OSU coach Mike Riley used to make a few bucks in the summers painting the inside of the stadium. It’s charming stuff. Smith played his college ball there. I like that, too.
There have been a multitude of renovations and expansions over the years. The turf has been ripped out and replaced. Prior to this season, they installed a $5 million video board. And when Oregon State was expanding the seating in the north end zone in 2016, construction crews digging in the end zone found a four-foot long femur bone that came from an ancient mammoth.
That old stadium has lots of stories to tell. But it’s the one Smith is putting together right now that I can’t take my eyes off.
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