FLC football turns heads

Smith’s hire draws attention locally, regionally and nationally

Fort Lewis College’s hiring of former Arkansas and Michigan State head football coach John L. Smith on Wednesday created an unprecedented national media buzz around FLC athletics and the football program. “For athletics, far and away (Wednesday) was the craziest day we’ve ever had,” FLC sports information director Chris Aaland said. Enlarge photo

April L. Brown/Associated Press file photo

Fort Lewis College’s hiring of former Arkansas and Michigan State head football coach John L. Smith on Wednesday created an unprecedented national media buzz around FLC athletics and the football program. “For athletics, far and away (Wednesday) was the craziest day we’ve ever had,” FLC sports information director Chris Aaland said.

Wednesday, it really was all about “The Lew.”

Jim Rome, he of the nationally syndicated sports talk radio show, coined the term during what was a humorous, if potentially offensive, shot at Fort Lewis College and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

But file that under the category of no press is bad press, because before Wednesday, it would’ve seemed a dream for a talking head of Rome’s stature to spend nearly 10 minutes discussing Durango’s Division II institution of higher learning.

The hiring of former Arkansas and Michigan State head coach John L. Smith as the school’s new head football coach didn’t just catch the eye of Rome, either. Mere minutes after the story broke locally, it went national. It set up a rollercoaster day for Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications Chris Aaland, who said in 21 years working at FLC in various departments, he couldn’t remember a bigger media buzz around the athletic department as a whole or the football team in particular.

Add Thursday’s hiring of Casey “Gus” Bradley – who spent four years as an FLC assistant coach and four months as a head coach before stepping down before his first game – as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and it’s been a banner couple of days in the land of the Skyhawks.

“For athletics, far and away (Wednesday) was the craziest day we’ve ever had,” Aaland said.

News of Smith’s hiring quickly made its way from Durango to cbssports.com’s Eye on College Football blog, then to Rome’s show, both within the span of about a half-hour.

It didn’t stop there. The Associated Press and The Denver Post each ran their own independent stories on the hire, as did The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and various other publications around Arkansas, where Smith coached last season before the university allowed his contract to expire after a 4-8 campaign.

Arkansas sports talk radio was abuzz about the subject. And the story made an appearance on ESPN’s crawl and on its Southeastern Conference blog, along with SI.com’s Tracking Blog.

All of this made for an entertaining and busy day for Aaland, who fielded communication from a multitude of far-flung football alumni and media inquiries from all manner of national and regional outlets until late Wednesday evening, including one amusing instance while waiting to see his doctor for a routine checkup after his recent heart surgery.

“It was a career highlight for me,” Aaland said. “I was actually at the doctor’s office (Wednesday) ... and I got a call from ESPN. I was in the waiting room, and I told the receptionist that I had to go outside and take a call from ESPN.

“It was good to make the doctor’s office wait on me.”

Aaland said during his tenure, there’s only two other instances he can think of where the college as a whole, not simply the athletic department, received such national media exposure. One involved an event back in the 1990s when a member of the Ku Klux Klan was allowed to speak on campus, and the university offered alternative options for those not wishing to hear him speak. The other was in 2001, when a professor was set to teach a seminar called “The Poetics of Porn.”

“I was the PR director of the college at the time and found out about (the seminar) on CNN ... and immediately drove back to Durango,” Aaland said.

As for Rome’s 10-minute diatribe, Aaland said he personally got a kick out of it, having listened to it multiple times since coming across the clip. And he’s got a feeling that the phrase “It’s all about The Lew” – a take off a song about the University of Miami’s or “The U’s” football team – isn’t going away anytime soon.

“I now take ‘It’s all about The Lew’ as a rallying cry for Skyhawk football,” he said. “It was a new day (Wednesday), and there’s a lot of excitement here.”

rowens@durangoherald.com