Smith’s hiring is a coup for the Skyhawks

John L. Smith used to coach in packed Southeastern Conference stadiums.

His new place barely holds 3,000 fans.

Smith went up against teams like Alabama that were contending for national championships.

Now, he will get to face squads in the little-known Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

Smith was hired Wednesday as the head coach at tiny Fort Lewis College in Durango, a Division II school coming off an 0-10 season, after being let go as coach at Arkansas.

He will make around $67,000 a season, which will be renewed on a year-by-year basis, and he only will have 16 or 17 scholarships to dole out.

That’s a long way from SEC football.

Sure, Smith had other offers to become a position coach that paid more after he was let go by the Razorbacks. But this quaint mountain town located about 330 miles southwest of Denver simply is his kind of place. Plus, he’s reunited with director of athletics Gary Hunter, who gave Smith his first head coaching job at Idaho in 1989.

“To get a quality coach like John L. Smith, we’re very fortunate,” Hunter said. “When this became a possibility, I called him up and said, ‘Durango is a gorgeous spot to live, why don’t you come on over here and put this program back together?’”

That was enough enticement for Smith, who’s an avid skier and now will be surrounded by some of the best powder skiing in the world.

The two sides have yet to officially formalize their deal. So far, a simple handshake agreement has been sufficient. Smith is expected to begin his new head coaching assignment March 1, the school announced.

“When he gets here, we’ll march into human resources and get a contract,” Hunter said with a chuckle.

“Not exactly what’s going on in the NFL or SEC, huh?” he said.

Smith was hired away from Weber State last April to step in for ousted Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, just weeks after a scandal that erupted following Petrino’s motorcycle accident that involved his mistress.

The Razorbacks had big hopes under Smith, especially after starting the season ranked in the top 10. But the team struggled to a 4-8 record, and the John L. Smith era came to a close.

And now the 64-year-old former Michigan State and Louisville coach gets an opportunity to resurrect his career in Durango, a city with a population of around 17,000. He has plenty of work to do in turning around the Skyhawks, a team that’s only had 10 winning records in 50 seasons as a four-year school.

“To me, it’s a situation where we’re going to have to work hard to try and get the excitement up, get the program going in the right direction, win some games and graduate our kids,” Smith said.

In 19 seasons as a head coach, Smith has compiled an impressive record (136-94) and picked up a few accolades (Big Ten Coach of the Year at Michigan State in 2003) along the way. He’s also been to seven bowl games and captured six conference titles.

This hiring definitely is a coup for the school.

“Fort Lewis College is making a commitment to football,” Hunter said. “Many of our other programs have reached the pinnacle of success at the national and regional levels. We want our football alumni and fans to have the opportunity to enjoy that same success.”

Hunter isn’t expecting an immediate turnaround.

No, that’s asking too much out of his good friend.

“Our first goal is to be competitive, to be respected,” Hunter said. “Then, maybe we can attract recruits and other good football players because winning takes care of itself.

“The one beautiful thing about John L. is this: What you see is what he is. There’s not a dishonest word out of his mouth. I knew him when he wasn’t making anything at Idaho and then making big money at Michigan State. He’s the same guy. He’s the same down-home, fun-loving guy.”

Smith replaces Cesar Rivas-Sandoval, who announced his resignation a week ago after three seasons and a 6-25 record.

Among Smith’s assistant coaches will be Skyhawks’ defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato, who played for Smith at Idaho and also served as director of football operations under Smith at Louisville in 2002.

“He’s a great player’s coach,” Rifilato said.