For his first Beaver State Tour, Oregon State football coach Jonathan Smith is enjoying the opportunity to give back to those who gave him so much during his playing days in the program.
He’s also enjoying the whirlwind of excitement his presence seems to bring along the way, realizing of course that the flattering praise won’t always be a given once his record moves from 0-0 in his first turn as a head coach.
“I’m trying to enjoy it all because we play a couple games here come the fall and you never know after that,” the 39-year-old Smith said with a laugh Wednesday on the patio at Rogue Valley Country Club.
For a football program that has essentially been on the downswing since 2012, Smith’s hiring last November served as a beacon of hope for Beaver fans who long for the heyday when he was at quarterback. As a walk-on who worked his way to the top, Smith guided Oregon State to some of its greatest success during his run from 1998-2001, including an 11-1 campaign in 2000 that saw the Beavers tie for first in the Pac-10 Conference and dominate Notre Dame for a 41-9 victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
“I think without question it’s energized the fan base,” said Oregon State Athletic Director Scott Barnes of Smith’s hiring. “They remember him as a player — as a gritty walk-on and what he accomplished — and know that having been an elite Pac-12 coordinator the last four years (at Washington) and with the mentorship he’s had and his pedigree and leadership capacity that he’ll be an excellent head coach.”
Smith has heard it all and smiles politely, conscious to not put the cart before the horse since his first game as a head coach won’t even come until Sept. 1 when the Beavers travel to play at Ohio State.
“Some of myself coming back reclaimed some of the good memories of what took place before and really what can happen again,” he said. “So I think there’s a great vibe and energy with what we’ve got going, but we’ve got some work to do for sure. This league is competitive and there’s some work to do, but I’m anxious to get started on it.”
That work already began with 15 days of spring football that gave Smith and his new staff, which includes former Beavers head coach Mike Riley, a chance to see some of what they have to work with come this fall.
“It’s a constant work in progress but we’re going to put a product out there where these guys are competing and working and enjoying what they’re doing and we’ll see how it plays out,” said Smith.
Oregon State’s last winning season was a 7-6 campaign in 2013 under Riley in his second go-round, and last year’s 1-11 campaign proved to be taxing on Beaver believers with the stunning midseason departure of then-head coach Gary Andersen and a winless run under interim replacement Cory Hall.
“It has been a tough couple of years, for sure, and it’s kind of been unique with the situations taking place with coaching changes and those things,” said Smith. “We’re just optimistic moving forward knowing what (Oregon State) has done before and just being able to build on that. I know this league inside and out, I was in it the last four years, so this thing is tough. It can be done, but it’s going to be hard.”
Barnes said Smith was impressive in plotting out his course for the Beavers during the interview process last year, from his awareness of the type of coaching staff to put together to his dedicated belief that you can win in Corvallis.
“Jonathan’s a very focused, passionate individual,” said Barnes. “He understands this place and how to recruit to it and how to put together the staff that he talked about in the interview room that I think will be off the charts. The energy level, the focus on details, the fact that he’s very decisive, those are all things you like to see in a young head coach.”
And while Smith said he’s not very good at being patient, that is entirely what the Oregon State fan base will need to be as the Beavers work to quickly regroup.
Besides Barnes, Smith had another key figure in his corner during the tour stop in Medford in OSU men’s basketball coach Wayne Tinkle, who said each of the athletic programs in Corvallis have gotten a boost from the buzz Smith’s hiring has created.
“Without a doubt, we feel it throughout campus,” said Tinkle, whose Beavers went 16-16 last year but anticipate a big jump in the 2018-19 season. “They call it, ‘The Return.’ One of their own is coming home to lead the program out of some dark depths and there’s no better person to have just with his charisma, his personality, his dedication and what OSU means to him. I think that’s going to translate.”
“Now we all know it’s going to take some time,” added Tinkle, “but the staff that he’s assembled, they’re going to be very easy to pull for and we know it won’t take them too long until they’re showing real signs of improvement.”
This fall’s football cast includes a capable offensive line, led by junior left tackle Blake Brandel, but is still unsettled at quarterback, where senior returner Jake Luton will work this summer to stave off sophomores Conor Blount and Jack Colletto.
Smith has done well in handling quarterbacks since graduating from Oregon State, first as a graduate assistant with the Beavers and then through his building coaching career at Idaho (2004-09), Montana (2010-11), Boise State (2012-13) and Washington (2014-17). He said he’s in no hurry to name a starting QB, and has been pleased with the progress of all the program’s signal-callers in their ability to learn a new scheme and terminology.
“I do like the (quarterback) room and the kids and their work ethic,” said Smith. “That is a big position and everyone wants to talk about it. A lot of things start and end with the quarterback, but there’s a whole lot between those two things. We’re going to throw 11 guys out there at a time, and we’ll put the best players out there that we can.”
The fresh start Smith and his staff are providing is one that Barnes hopes will allow the football program to follow suit with the success Oregon State’s athletic programs are seeing across the board. Barnes noted nine Beaver programs have reached the postseason this school year with six ranked in the Top 25 for their respective sport, highlighted by the efforts in baseball and women’s basketball.
Barnes also said 16 of OSU’s 17 teams this last term achieved a 3.0 grade-point average or better, an all-time record at the school and a first for the football program.
“We feel good about our progress and yet there’s much more to do,” said Barnes.
As it relates to football, Barnes said he has high hopes for a turnaround but isn’t putting a timetable on that development.
“Everybody wants to see progress and we will,” he said. “We’ll see it in competitive play, first, and those turn into wins. Our goal is to be a consistent winner and ascend way beyond that from time to time and win a (Pac-12) championship and vie for a playoff spot.
“But the next step is to bring some stability to this program, where many of our players have had four head coaches in their time there. That stability and building a culture of winning and understanding of the mentality of what that takes is really sort of what they’re doing now.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry