Former Louisville coach John L. Smith on coaching at Kentucky State and this year’s U of L team.
Kentucky State University head football coach John L. Smith gave instruction during practice. Smith previously ran the programs at several schools, including the University of Louisville.Aug. 9, 2017(Photo: Sam Upshaw Jr./Louisville Courie)
FRANKFORT, Ky. — A crowd of about 50 people formed a circle in the showroom of the Neil Huffman Chevrolet, Buick and GMC dealership in Kentucky’s capital city on a warm Tuesday morning in September.
Most of the salespeople and other dealership employees in attendance held cups of coffee in their hands, but they didn’t need them.
John L. Smith had already woken them up.
The 69-year-old Kentucky State football coach, wearing cowboy boots and jeans with a short-sleeved dress shirt and tie, delivered a pep talk before the day’s work began. He spoke in ebbs and flows, with long pauses followed by shouts for emphasis.
“Our philosophy is this: It’s not ‘I, me and my,'” Smith said. “This is an ‘us, we and our’ program, and you better, if you have ‘I, me and my’ in your vocabulary, get rid of it.”
He paused for three seconds. Then he hollered, “I hate people who are always saying, ‘I, me or my.’ What’s wrong with ‘us, we and our?'”
Remove the cars, and the showroom might have felt like a locker room, with the former Arkansas, Idaho, Louisville, Michigan State and Utah State coach a commanding figure in the middle of it all.
“That’s what he does,” said Chris Smeland, Smith’s close friend and long-time coaching colleague. “He grabs your attention.”
Five years removed from his last top-flight head coaching job and working just 45 minutes east of Louisville, Smith is still going strong. He is still getting up early. He is still wearing those trademark cowboy boots — he estimates he owns 20 pairs in all, filling one closet in his Shelbyville home. He is still skiing. He is still running stadium steps.
And he is still in love with rebuilding football programs.
He is finishing year No. 2 of an overhaul at Kentucky State, and while his Thorobreds last year won their first division title in 20 years of membership in NCAA Division II’s Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, there is a lot of work ahead. This season’s team lost six of its first eight games.
“If we really get in there and do it right, this place really has a big upside,” Smith said. “We still haven’t touched the surface of what can be done.”
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It doesn’t take long to realize Kentucky State football is a lot different than the programs Smith has led in the past.
In the seasons before Smith took over each program, Utah State was 3-8, Louisville was 1-10 and Michigan State was 4-8. Smith’s teams at those three schools went 79-65 with seven bowl appearances. They competed in the Big West, Conference USA and Big Ten.
His nine-month stint at Arkansas in 2012 was an interim job in the wake of Bobby Petrino’s firing, but he experienced Southeastern Conference football, too.
Those conferences, the SIAC is not. Those schools, Kentucky State is not.
The team travels to road games on two buses that already have thousands of miles on them. The hallways of Kentucky State’s football facility resemble an old high school, though the walls were recently repainted. They just installed shelves in the equipment room and put a fresh coat of paint in the showers, too.
In the team’s only meeting room, tables leaned up against the wall to make room for four rows of chairs. Eventually, Smith said, he’d like to split the room into two so the Thorobreds’ offensive coaches and players can meet at the same time as the defensive coaches and players. But for now, meetings start an hour earlier so both units can use the room.
The locker room needs new lockers and the weight room needs new equipment, Smith explained. The practice field is almost entirely crabgrass and “God awful,” he said.
“You’re almost embarrassed to ask your kids to go out and practice on those fields,” Smith said. “But Division II, we don’t know any better.”
But Smith has found some traction.
Capital Plaza Hotel donated rooms for visiting recruits and their families. He is hopeful about the feedback he received from multiple restaurants and caterers in the area who may be interested in donating meals for the players.
“”If we really get in there and do it right, this place really has a big upside. We still haven’t touched the surface of what can be done.””
Woodford Feed Co., a feed and seed store in Versailles, has donated more than a thousand pounds of grass seed for Kentucky State’s playing surface over the past 18 months or so.
The company’s owner, Bob Cleveland, said some friends and former University of Kentucky classmates who were from the Louisville area spoke highly of Smith, and he was happy to give to the Thorobreds.
“He’s a very personable guy,” Cleveland said. “He looks you in the eye. He told me he was trying to upgrade Kentucky State’s program and facilities on a limited budget and was looking for any help he could get. I told him I’d be happy to help.”
Kentucky State’s players clean the facilities, and the staff members take care of the equipment and the fields.
“We’ve done as much as we can do with lipstick,” Smith said. “You have to take not steps but inches here.”
Smith built an experienced staff around him with limited resources. Kentucky State only has four full-time assistant coaches; Miles College, one of the SIAC’s strongest programs, has nine full-timers.
The offensive coordinator, Michael Digman, worked as an assistant at Connecticut. Ken Ackerman, the offensive line coach, played at Nevada. Former Louisville offensive lineman Tobijah Hughley is a graduate assistant.
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Assistant head coach Wade Green, who also coaches defensive backs, was the defensive coordinator at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School.
Then there’s Smeland, Kentucky State’s defensive coordinator. The former defensive coordinator at Army, Louisville, Michigan State and Utah State thought he was retired, living in the eastern part of Louisville when Smith called him.
“John L. calls me up and says, ‘What’s it going to take to get you out of retirement?'” said Smeland, an assistant at 10 Division I programs over the past 40-plus years. “I said it depends where it is and who I’d be working for. … But where’s Kentucky State? I just kind of thought, ‘We can have some fun with this. It’s Division II. We’re underfunded and low on personnel, but we can coach some ball.'”
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As Smith scrapped together a plan off the field, the on-field results came in his first year.
Kentucky State went 4-7 but won the SIAC’s West Division and played in its first SIAC championship game, which the Thorobreds lost in double overtime. Among their four wins was a special-teams-fueled 10-9 victory at powerhouse Tuskegee.
Smith, who was the first white head coach in the historically black college conference’s century-long history, according to ESPN’s The Undefeated, was named the SIAC’s coach of the year.
This season hasn’t been as successful, with the Thorobreds standing at 3-8.
But Smith liked the group he has assembled. Kentucky State has 98 players from 14 different states and the District of Columbia. Nineteen Louisville products are on the team.
“”I just kind of thought, ‘We can have some fun with this. It’s Division II. We’re underfunded and low on personnel, but we can coach some ball.'””
Iroquois High grad Matthew Bizimana has 38 tackles. Tyrone Wilkerson, who played at Male High, is second on the team in rushing, with 228 yards. Shawnee’s Jaylen Wesley is tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
“When I got the freshman class report and saw the quality of the class and the kids he recruited, I was very impressed,” said Christopher Brown II, the president of Kentucky State. “I went into the locker room after the Central State game in Indianapolis, and I saw the level of discipline that he had without yelling, raising his voice, blowing the whistle. The way he commanded the respect that room, that really stood out to me.”
What makes Smith particularly proud is that Kentucky State has a solid team with only 25 scholarships to offer. Many of his players are walk-ons, and many have part-time jobs working at places like Lowe’s, Walmart or restaurants.
The SIAC allows schools to offer up to 36 football scholarships, and Miles and Tuskegee, bigger programs, use the maximum number.
“We’re competing against people in our league who have a distinct advantage in scholarships and a distinct advantage in coaches,” Smith said.
When Kentucky State announced Smith’s hiring after the 2015 season, the school’s president at the time, Raymond Burse, called him “one of the best coaches in America,” saying Smith’s addition at KSU “starts a new tradition for Thorobred football.”
It felt like a return home for Smith, who coached the University of Louisville’s program from 1998-2002 and whose grown-up children live in the Louisville area. His wife had kept up the Shelbyville house over the years, so they didn’t even have to find a new place to live when Smith left Fort Lewis College, a Division II program in Colorado.
“Coaching in situations like this, it’s in his blood,” said Dave Ragone, Smith’s star quarterback at Louisville who is now the Chicago Bears quarterbacks coach. “Seeing him in his natural habitat and being around young people and trying to affect their lives in a positive way, I don’t know what he would do without it. … As long as he feels he’s got the energy to do that, any coach or player who is around him will benefit tremendously from it.”
But the hard work is only in its beginning stages. Smith said he believes the turnaround will need more administrative and financial support, and that attracting more quality players will require improved facilities.
He is going about the daily process of rebuilding a program the same way he always has, with a long checklist and that same adventurous smile.
It’s a familiar place to be in for Smith. And he feels confident his way of rebuilding works.
In mid-September, Kentucky State’s sports information director Eric Mathews picked up Smith to take him to a game. When the coach came outside, he was wearing a green tie and matching green boots.
“Above all else, you have to be yourself,” Smith said. “And boy, you’d really like to say we can get this going in the right direction.”
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