Michigan State AD ‘had to step up pursuit’ to land Jonathan Smith

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State had enough competition from Power 5 college football teams also hoping to hire Jonathan Smith that it added a seventh year to his contract, helping a shaken program land the former Oregon State coach.

“I was nervous a couple weeks ago because there were jobs that were talking about being open — and there were jobs that were open — that were looking at him,” athletic director Alan Haller said Tuesday, adding that Smith will make $7.25 million in his first season. “I had to step up my pursuit.”

The Spartans had a lot at stake to get it right.

They’re coming off a 4-8 season stunted by news that led to Mel Tucker being fired and entering a year with the Big Ten expanding to include Oregon, Washington, USC and UCLA from the Pac-12.

“There’s no other Big Ten coach that is going to have that jumpstart on those four schools,” said Haller, who interviewed 12 coaching candidates at least once.

Smith will need all the help he can get because Michigan State has had only one winning season in four years.

The program’s history is marked by inconsistency, showing it can win 36 games and two conference titles in a three-year span as former coach Mark Dantonio did, and yet failing to sustain success in any decade since joining the Big Ten in 1953.

“A lot of us in this room understand, this is going to take some work,” Smith said at his introductory news conference at the Breslin Center. “I am definitely excited and up for the challenge — and the opportunity.”

This will not be Smith’s first shot at turning around a team, and the Spartans who stay and those who choose to come will hear his mantra, “low ego, high output,” early and often.

Oregon State was winless in conference play and had only one victory the year before it brought Smith back to campus.

“The place was not having a ton of success, had some turmoil,” he said.

The Beavers were 2-10 in 2018 during Smith’s first season and improved enough under him to win 25 games over the last three seasons of his six-year stay. He won 10 games last season, sharing Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors, and finished with a 34-35 record over six seasons at his alma mater.

Smith, 44, was born in Pasadena, California, a mile from the Rose Bowl. He went to Oregon State as a walk-on and became a two-year captain and starting quarterback for Mike Riley and Dennis Erickson, coaches he worked for at the school as a graduate assistant.

Smith coached quarterbacks at Idaho, Montana and Boise State, where he worked with Chris Petersen and left with him to call plays as Petersen’s offensive coordinator at Washington.

“I like that he’s a regular guy,” Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo said. “I like that he was a walk-on, who has been through the process, starting as a grad assistant. It reminds me of myself.”

During Smith’s first 48 hours at Michigan State, he had dinner with Izzo and spent time with the last coach to turn the football program around.

Dantonio inherited a team in 2019, coming off three losing seasons under John L. Smith, and surpassed Duffy Daugherty as the school’s all-time winningest coach while winning three Big Ten titles from 2007 to 2019.

“I had an opportunity to sit down with Coach Smith for an hour and I was impressed,” Dantonio said. “He’s got a good plan moving forward and you can tell he’s a meticulous person who can carry out his plan because he’s done it before.”

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