Canzano: Jonathan Smith gone to Michigan State, what now?
Oregon State must act quickly.
Jonathan Smith is gone.
He’s the new football coach at Michigan State.
I had Smith penciled in to leave Oregon State for USC or Washington someday. Maybe he’ll still end up at one of those places eventually, but on Saturday he traded an uncertain future in the “Pac-2” for a tricky challenge in the Big Ten.
Will he regret it?
And what now for Oregon State?
Those are questions to ask.
I couldn’t help but think about Dennis Erickson to the 49ers when I heard the news of Smith’s departure. And Mike Riley to Nebraska. And Chip Kelly to the Eagles… then 49ers… and then UCLA. And the departures of Willie Taggart and Mario Cristobal, too.
I’m sure there are examples of Oregon residents leaving the Pacific Northwest and finding happiness and professional success elsewhere, but head football coaches who move away mostly just spin in circles and get fired.
Smith said he “supported” OSU’s plan for 2024. But he couldn’t have loved it. No way around that. If he did, Smith would have stuck around to see it through. In the end, he made a risk-assessment calculation and chose the security of a mid-tier “Power 4” job over waiting to see what’s around the corner in Corvallis.
Might as well blame Larry Scott, George Kliavkoff, a dozen inept Pac-12 presidents, and the television networks, too. The downfall of the Pac-12 Conference has far-reaching tentacles and one of them just knocked OSU fans off their feet again on Saturday.
Oregon State is in a precarious position. The Beavers have no conference beyond next July. The school just renovated the west side of the home stadium. OSU is immersed in a legal fight for control of the Pac-12 board. Now, the school faces life without the guy everyone believed could lead them across that high wire without a safety net.
A mentor of mine — the late Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine editor Charlie Waters — often used a phrase that perfectly captured such a circumstance.
“F**ked,” Waters used to say, “and far away from home.”
Jaydon Grant, former OSU safety now with the Las Vegas Raiders, texted me minutes after Smith’s announced departure.
“Trent Bray,” he wrote.
What will the Beavers do? Promote Bray, the OSU defensive coordinator? Chase down San Jose State’s Brent Brennan? How about someone like Fresno State’s Jeff Tedford? Or do they bring back Mike Riley for a third tenure as head coach or even as a consultant?
Riley told me on Saturday: “Any help I can give Oregon State I will.”
These are decisions now for athletic director Scott Barnes, who issued a statement after the departure of Smith. Wrote Barnes: “We have immediately begun a national search to find the next Oregon State head football coach.”
A few quick thoughts:
• There’s also some trashing of Smith going on. Most of the venting is rooted in frustration from long-time OSU fans who are tired of being punched in the gut. I get it. Breakups suck. Smith was the one thing Beavers fans believed they could count on. Coaching changes are rarely easy or smooth. This one especially stinks.
• Smith was really good for Oregon State. Lots of people are grateful for the job he did in Corvallis. Smith saved the program after the mid-season departure of Gary Andersen. The job was a dumpster fire. Smith left OSU’s program better than he found it.
• Oregon State must immediately go public with the plan for 2024 football season. It can’t afford to wait for a dramatic reveal. The transfer portal opens Dec. 4. Because of that, the hire has to happen rapidly. Which is only to say that if Barnes hasn’t been plotting contingencies in the last week, it will become apparent in the next 72 hours.
• Barnes will join me on Monday at 4 p.m. on the radio show. Make an appointment. It should provide some clarity.
• Three seasons ago, I stood with Smith on the field at the Los Angeles Coliseum before kickoff of an Oregon State vs. USC game. The Beavers’ coach pointed toward a section in the stands and told me: “We used to sit right there when I was a kid.”
“Good times,” he said.
When Jennifer Cohen took the job as athletic director at USC I figured Smith would someday be a short-list candidate with the Trojans. Only behind Kalen DeBoer, maybe. USC is Smith’s dream job. Or maybe if DeBoer went to USC to join Cohen, Smith would have been UW’s first call. But what I didn’t expect was Smith to flee to Michigan State. He must view that move as a safer bridge to the rest of his career.
• Michigan State plays at Oregon next season (Oct. 5). We’ll see Smith soon enough. It will feel weird that he’s not wearing OSU gear on the sideline. But as they say, “show business, not show friends.”
• Smith issued a statement on Twitter on Saturday, thanking fans and supporters. He wrote: “I will cherish the memories and friendships.” Me? I’ll miss how hard Smith’s teams played and I’ll miss his authenticity. He was always candid in our 1-on-1 interviews. Our talk on Tuesday was a great example of that.
• Michigan State craved stability. It was desperate in the wake of the Mel Tucker mess to make a character hire who can win some games. Smith is that. Its Board of Trustees is a mess. The board rifles through presidents like you and I change socks. But the school has deep-pocketed boosters and wants to matter in the new-world Big Ten.
• Oregon State isn’t just losing Smith here. It’s losing infrastructure and talent. He’ll take support staff and a lot of the furniture from OSU.
This isn’t just a changing of the guard, it causes a complete makeover for the program. The Beavers plan for the “Pac-2” centered around stability with Smith, investing heavily in football, and trying to stay relevant for the next 24-36 months while waiting for another round of college football chaos. This becomes the most critical hire in Oregon State football history.
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