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HBCU Football

John L. Smith gets Kentucky State winning again

Former Michigan State and Louisville football coach has found a new home near his old one

Kentucky State head coach John L. Smith was hired last December as the first white head football coach in the 103-year history of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC).

While the move raised eyebrows and a little concern among some, Smith didn’t know he had that distinction until our interview with him this past week.

“No way,” he said inconceivably. “Really, I did not know that.”

While his historic hiring and the fact that the former head coach at Idaho (1989-94), Utah State (1995-97), Louisville (1998-2002), Michigan State (2003-06), and Arkansas (2009-11, 2012) took the position at the 1,700-student historically black college in Frankfort, Kentucky, is enough to garner headlines, Smith is getting as much notice for what he’s done in his first year on the job.

Despite losing games over the final two weeks of the regular season, the 4-6 Thorobreds have won the SIAC’s West Division title for the first time in the school’s near 20-year history in the conference and will play in Saturday’s SIAC championship game in Montgomery, Alabama, also for the first time. They will play Fort Valley State, who won the East Division title with a 17-10 win over Albany State.

To earn the title game berth, Smith’s troops beat SIAC West powers Miles (28-24) and Tuskegee (10-9) on back-to-back weekends during a three-game winning streak in October that began with a 26-10 win over Fort Valley State. Tuskegee and Miles have both won two SIAC championships in the last five years and were both viewed as favorites to take this year’s title.

KSU scored two touchdowns in the final quarter, the last on a fumble recovery in the end zone with two minutes left, to win their homecoming over Miles, the league’s defending champion on Oct. 15. A week later, led by senior middle linebacker Travon Spencer, KSU held Tuskegee, the top-scoring team in the SIAC, with 27 points a game and ranked fifth nationally in NCAA Division II, to an early first-quarter field goal and a lone touchdown with just under three minutes to play. KSU then blocked the game-tying extra point attempt and blocked a game-winning 18-yard field goal attempt in the final minute to spoil Tuskegee’s homecoming.

“I attended the Tuskegee game, and I tell you, I couldn’t have been more proud of our team,” said KSU athletics director William Graham. “Because here you’ve got some 20,000 people there, and they watched us beat Tuskegee. Our kids went down there and had a spectacular game. We weren’t even supposed to be in the game.

“I’ve never seen it where you block a field goal and an extra point and you win the game on homecoming. I’ve seen a lot of football but I’ve never seen that happen.”

“Surprised and shocked,” is the way KSU sports information director Eric Mathews describes the mood of the team and on the campus.

“What has happened this year is such a quick turnaround,” he said. “People kind of told themselves how cool it would be if this happened, but I don’t think people believed it would happen. And now everybody’s sitting back and going, Wow! This is really awesome.”

Not only had KSU never beaten Miles and Tuskegee in the same season, but they had lost six straight to Miles and 17 of 18 games to Tuskegee including the last four before Smith’s arrival. The Thorobreds, who were preseason picks by league coaches to finish last out of the five-team West Division, clinched the title with a 3-1 division record with two games left in the regular season.

“When those preseason picks came out, I was really surprised. We were picked No. 5 [in the West], last of the whole group. I said they must don’t know who this guy is,” Graham said of the man they call “John L.,” who had compiled a 150-113 record in his previous six head coaching stops.

“I guessed we’ve proved them wrong,” Graham said.

Smith, 67, says his decision to accept the KSU job after compiling a three-year record of 14-19 at NCAA Division II Fort Lewis in Durango, Colorado, was simply a matter of coming home. From his days as the head coach at Louisville, Smith and his wife Diana have a home in Shelbyville, Kentucky, about 20 miles down the road from Frankfort. Their children and grandchildren live in the area.

“My wife came home one day last year and said ‘Are you aware that Kentucky State fired their coach?’ ” Smith explained. “Going to work, I don’t keep up with all that stuff.” She said, “ ‘Maybe you ought to give that president a call.’ ”

Well, that’s exactly what he did.

Smith said then-KSU President Raymond Burse told him upon interviewing him for the job last year that KSU had the most diverse campus in the state of Kentucky. Burse, who resigned in May, was then in the midst of implementing a federally mandated desegregation plan that has transformed KSU. According to a recent survey, almost 30 percent of KSU’s student body is now white, with another 10-12 percent Asian and Hispanic.

“President Burse in his philosophy said we want to be, we will be and we are the most diverse campus in the state of Kentucky. That was one of his big beliefs,” said Smith. “I don’t know if that had anything to do with his hiring me. He never talked about it.

“I looked at the school, what has and or hasn’t been accomplished and said, I think if we get in and do things the right way, build some support around the community and in the town, it’s got a big upside. So let’s give it a shot.”

Mathews said there were only 50 players out for spring ball after Smith was hired. When practice started in August, 140 came out.

“Coach Smith has come in and really shaken things up,” he said. “He’s the most genuine and loyal person I’ve come across in the coaching profession. He has a vibe about him that‘s just infectious. He loves what he does and cares about the kids. I was expecting an old-school coach that I’d have a hard time getting along with. But that changed on a dime.”

Smith and his staff have accomplished the task, playing with a roster that includes some 26 freshmen and nearly as many transfers. The Thorobreds are not at or near the top in any SIAC individual or team statistics. Defense has been their calling card. Defensive coordinator Chris Smeland has held the same job while working for Smith at Louisville, Michigan State and Utah State.

“I’m a big believer that you’re as good as your leadership and that usually comes down to your seniors,” said Smith. “We have a senior on the defensive side, Travon Spencer, that’s a middle linebacker for us. He’s done a tremendous job in leading us. He’s taken on the task of leading the entire team, not just the defensive side of the ball. He’s been our mainstay.”

Quarterback Jules St. Gee (68 of 132 with six interceptions, 756 yards, four touchdowns) is a true freshman who Smith says has done a good job managing the offense. They’ve had some success at the running back position with Reginal Harris (632 yards, six touchdowns) and Darmontrae Warr (441 yards, two touchdowns). About midway through the season, they settled on five offensive linemen. “Not having to juggle that has made us better on that side of the ball,” Smith said.

But the defensive line has been the key group, Smith said of defensive linemen Rodriguez Jones, Donovan Cecil, who blocked the extra-point attempt against Tuskegee, Nick Beckhum, who recovered the game-winning fumble versus Miles, and Myrthel Stewart.

“We’ve got to out-execute teams,” he said. “Athlete to athlete, we’re probably not as good as the teams we play. It’s about technique and execution. We have to learn to out-execute teams, be solid on special teams and not turn over the football.”

Keeping his team focused became more difficult after KSU clinched the divisional title with two regular-season games left. They closed out the regular season Saturday with a 39-35 home loss to Benedict.

“It was hard,” said Smith of his team’s 35-21 home loss to Lane after clinching the title. “But I think it was good because we were like a bunch of giddy schoolchildren. To be honest with you, it was like the first day of school. Everybody was laughing and giggling, taking pictures. I think having that game last week helped us.”

KSU played better versus Benedict, jumping out to a 28-14 halftime lead before being outscored 25-7 in the second half. Harris rushed for a career-high 195 yards and scored three touchdowns. Gee threw two touchdowns, while Spencer had 11 tackles to become the first KSU player to top 100 tackles in a season.

In the previous win over Fort Valley, Spencer had a season-high 19 tackles. Gee was an efficient 10 of 17 for 194 yards and a touchdown. Placekicker Bill Rose kicked field goals of 30 and 40 yards and the Thorobreds did not turn the ball over.

“This last week [leading to the championship game] will take care of itself,” Smith said. “We’ll be ready.”

Carl ‘Lut' Williams is the publisher and editor of the Black College Sports Page.