Team preview: Michigan State
The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 Michigan State Spartans, exclusively on Insider.
He seemed like the perfect fit. And, at least initially, he was.
John L. Smith took over at Michigan State in 2003 and was an instant breath of fresh air for the Big Ten. He was funny and charming and self-deprecating. Smith told anyone who would listen that the L in his name stood for Lansing. Of course, he had used the same line at both Louisville and Utah State (Logan).
Coming from Conference USA's Louisville, he had an underdog attitude that helped him in his first season. Giving Jeff Smoker a second chance despite significant off-the-field issues, Smith pieced together an eight-win season that ended in the Alamo Bowl. It was his seventh postseason game in a row, one each at Utah State and Michigan State and five at Louisville.
Seemingly, he had the Michigan State program moving in the right direction. He was the perfect ying to the yang at Michigan, a school that has always had its way in recruiting a state loaded with players.
The 2004 misstep (5-7 overall, 4-4 in the Big Ten) was forgiven as a temporary glitch caused partly by the breaking in of new players. Four games into the 2005 season, it looked like Smith had the Spartans on their way to a Big Ten title.
The team knocked off Kent State and Hawaii in the first two games. No reason to celebrate. But the third game, a 44-41 overtime stunner at Notre Dame, got the nation talking about Michigan State. The chatter turned even louder the next week when the Spartans socked Illinois, 61-14.
But the 4-0 start soon was forgotten. Consecutive painful losses to Michigan and Ohio State sent the Spartans on their way to a 1-6 finish. Coming off the field at halftime against the Buckeyes, Smith berated his coaches for a last-second mistake. That sound bite was proof that all was not well in Smith's house.
In the final three weeks, all the Spartans had to do to earn a respect-saving bowl bid was win one game. They couldn't do it, losing a close game at Purdue (28-21), a not-so-close game at Minnesota (41-18) and a pack-up-the-uniforms game against Big Ten champion Penn State (31-22).
Considered for knighthood after his first season, Smith's future suddenly seems tenuous. Though the fans continue to show up at Spartan Stadium, they are grumbling.
"I've been with coach Smith a lot of years," Michigan State defensive coordinator Chris Smeland said. "We've had a lot of success. We'll put the pressure on ourselves to be better than we were."