The plane has landed. The contract is signed. The intros are (mostly) done. Michigan State has a new football coach, and his name is Jonathan Smith.
Today at Breslin Center, Smith gave his introductory press conference in front of a packed crowd of media and MSU dignitaries, ushering in a new era of Spartan football.
I was there, and here are my main takeaways:
Apologies to any Beavers fans reading this and scoffing, but the main takeaway from Smith’s first appearance is that he is overwhelmingly real.
Smith used his opening remarks as a chance to familiarize the local crowd with the highlights of his story, beginning in Pasadena, where he was born just a mile from the Rose Bowl. He chronicled his climb up from walk on quarterback under Mike Riley to GA, to assistant stops at Idaho and Montana, then to Boise State with Chris Petersen, then following Petersen to Washington, and finally to his alma mater in Corvallis. If there was a drinking game phrase for his opening statement, it would have been “learned a ton,” as Smith has been a sponge at every stop along the way, learning from the programs and coaches he’s worked with.
At each spot, Smith emphasized what he learned - about people, schemes, and the game. It doesn’t take long to realize just how not flashy Smith is. He’s a football coach, one focused on developing players and building a better program today than the one that was in place yesterday. Smith’s delivery from the podium isn’t velvety smooth or neatly polished - he looked to have some jitters, especially when talking about his family. His emotion when thanking his wife and kids was very real.
“A Program of Substance on and off the Field”
Of all the lines from Tuesday’s press conference, Smith’s repeated emphasis on being “a program of substance” was both interesting and encouraging. Under the previous regime, MSU’s identity felt adrift. Mel Tucker’s goal as the program’s leader was to take MSU football to new heights, emulating Ohio State, Alabama, and Georgia in a race for 5 star recruits and flash. This strategy never came to fruition, as the highlight of the Tucker era was the identification and development of Kenneth Walker III, who was overlooked and underutilized at Wake Forest, much like the stars of the Dantonio era were overlooked by other programs and recruiting services as high schoolers.
In Jonathan Smith, MSU has what feels like a Mark Dantonio for 2023. A no-frills, lower-key personality with attention to detail and a staff who will focus on building. If his Oregon State program is any indication, this program won’t be stuck in the past, or loaded up on gimmicky schemes. As Smith emphasized, his brand of football is a physical brand in line with MSU’s past. One of his earliest coaching mentors was Paul Chryst, who we most recently saw at Wisconsin last season. Chryst’s teams have epitomized toughness, physicality, and (for non-Wisconsin fans) a frustrating level of simple competence. After the comedy of errors most egregiously on display against Rutgers, that level of competence hits like a tropical vacation.
The whiplash after the last few years of relentless image and brand consciousness is pretty jarring.
One of the things that Mel Tucker did well in his time as MSU’s football coach was his outreach to the football program’s past. Spartan Dawg Con, which began early in Tucker’s tenure, was a gathering of former players in East Lansing each summer that was well-regarded.
Outside of the football building, that attention to inclusion was lacking.
In his remarks, Alan Haller was very focused on the idea of community, and how Jonathan Smith and his family would add to the MSU community in addition to simply building a winning football program. He emphasized how loyal the MSU community has been throughout this challenging football season. In the same way that Tom Izzo and his family have cemented themselves as key members of the mid-Michigan community, I think we can expect the same from Jonathan Smith and his family.
Overall, we know little more about whether Jonathan Smith will win football games in East Lansing. The coaching staff is under construction, and players from the current roster are hitting the transfer portal at a breakneck pace, so we don’t know what the first Smith-led Spartans will look like when they take the field against FAU this fall. The one thing we can feel confident in is that this era won’t be a joke.
I’m not expecting any face slaps at press conferences. There’ll be no awkward social media campaigns, no NFTs, and no sexual harassment. It feels like we can expect competence. After the last few years, I think we’ll all take it.