Smith Won't Return as Michigan St. Coach

Thursday, November 2nd 2006, 5:48 am
By: News On 6

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) The up-and-down tenure of John L. Smith at Michigan State is coming to an end. Smith will finish the season as the struggling Spartans' head coach, but he won't be back in 2007.

'What we asked John L. Smith to do when he got here, he has done a lot of it,'' Michigan State athletic director Ron Mason said Wednesday. "It hasn't shown up on the field like we wanted.''

The firing came as no surprise. The Spartans are 22-23 under Smith and have been maddeningly inconsistent.

Smith had been under pressure at Michigan State and some fans were calling for his departure the last few years. School officials gave him a vote of confidence after last season's losing campaign, but were looking for better results in 2006.

Just two weeks ago, the Spartans (4-5) pulled off the greatest comeback in Division I-A history by rallying from 35 points down to beat Northwestern 41-38. The next week Michigan State lost 46-21 at Indiana to fall to 1-4 in the Big Ten.

Smith spoke with reporters after practice Wednesday for less than five minutes. He didn't answer questions about the problems with the program, but focused on what he wanted to accomplish in the next three games.

"If we prepare as hard as hard as we can, and play as hard as we can, hopefully we can be rewarded with a bowl game,'' Smith said. "It would be a heck of a going away party.''

The Spartans host Purdue on Saturday. They finish the season at home against Minnesota and on the road at Penn State.

Smith is in the fourth year of a six-year contract that pays him about $1.5 million annually. Michigan State said it will honor the last two years of Smith's contract, which will cost about $3.1 million.

Smith was credited with improving the team's academic performance. But after a fast and unexpectedly good 8-5 start in his first season, capped by an appearance in the Alamo Bowl, the program has struggled to maintain success.

Michigan State had losing records and did not qualify for a bowl in 2004 or 2005, and is in jeopardy of missing the postseason three consecutive seasons for the first time since the early 1980s.

Michigan State was 5-3 in the Big Ten his first season, then went 4-4 in 2004 and 2-6 in 2005. Smith will leave East Lansing having never beaten Michigan or Ohio State.

Mason and university president Lou Anna Simon said they reached the decision on Tuesday to make a change. Mason met with Smith on Wednesday, and the coach agreed to stay on the rest of the season.

Part of the reason behind the timing of the announcement is so Michigan State can search for a new coach with transparency, they said.

Mason said he believes the job will be attractive to a wide variety of coaches, but he wouldn't discuss specifics.

The program will be looking for its fourth leader since George Perles was fired at the end of the 1994 season, and that doesn't count an interim head coach that finished out the year when Bobby Williams was fired in 2002.

Smith has a 132-83 career record in 18 seasons as a college head coach.

He was hired at Michigan State after having success at Louisville, where he went 41-21 and made five consecutive bowl trips from 1998-2002.

Smith, who also coached at Utah State and Idaho, took over a Michigan State program that has rarely contended for a Big Ten championship since the late 1960s. The Spartans last went to the Rose Bowl after the 1987 season and haven't won a share of the Big Ten title since finishing in a four-way tie in 1990.

This season's Spartans started with three straight wins and led Notre Dame by 16 points in the fourth quarter. But Michigan State squandered the lead, lost 40-37, and hasn't been the same since.

The next week the Spartans lost to lowly Illinois.

Smith, an Idaho native who often wore cowboy boots, was sometimes too honest and animated for his own good, at least when his team wasn't winning.

He slapped himself during a press conference after the Illinois loss, a scene replayed on national sports highlight shows. Few understood it was a reference to the previous week's loss to Notre Dame, when Irish coach Charlie Weis said he was slapped during a sideline incident.

But Smith's critics noted that the self-slap made it clear he himself hadn't gotten over the Notre Dame loss.