Fort Lewis hires former Arkansas football coach John L. Smith

It might be the biggest hire in Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference football history.

Fort Lewis College, which hasn’t had a winning program in six seasons, hired longtime NCAA Division I head coach John L. Smith, the school announced Wednesday.

“It’s a huge name for the RMAC,” Colorado Mesa University football coach Russ Martin said. “John L. has been successful in a lot of places. He’s been around in Division I and had successful programs at each stop basically. He’s a very good football coach. He’s been a great recruiter. He’ll bring notoriety to the RMAC. He’ll do a good job. It will be a draw just for the name.”

Smith will become the head coach effective March 1, Fort Lewis announced Wednesday. Defensive coordinator and former Fort Lewis head coach Ed Rifilato will oversee day-to-day operations until Smith arrives on campus.

“Fort Lewis College is making a commitment to football,” Skyhawks Athletic Director Gary Hunter said in a news release. “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.”

Smith coached at the University of Idaho (1989–94), Utah State (1995–97), Louisville (1998–2002), Michigan State (2003–06) and Arkansas. In 19 seasons as a head coach, his teams have compiled a 136-94 record (.591) with seven bowl game appearances and six conference championships. He was the Big Ten Coach of the Year at Michigan State in 2003.

Hunter was Smith’s athletic director at Idaho. Fort Lewis President Dene Thomas also was at Idaho when Hunter hired Smith.

“If I didn’t know Dene Thomas, if I didn’t know Gary Hunter, it certainly would never have happened,” Smith told the Durango Herald.

“You walk into a locker room (in Division I), and I love the kids wherever I’ve been, and you’ve got a locker room full of kids just trying to get to the NFL. That’s their No. 1 goal,” Smith told the Herald. “Now you’re walking into a locker room where the kids just want to get better today.”

Smith takes over for Cesar Rivas-Sandoval, who resigned last week.

Smith will be in charge of redirecting a program that was 0-10 last season and had six straight losing seasons. The Skyhawks have posted a winning record only 10 times in the program’s 50 years.

“I don’t know the full extent (of the hire), but I know he’s had some ties with the AD and the president,” Martin said. “At the same time, it’s a surprise, him taking that job. Maybe Fort Lewis will pour more money into it. I didn’t see that type of hire coming without something changing.”

Martin said Rivas-Sandoval will stay in coaching and is looking for other opportunities. Rivas-Sandoval was an assistant on Nebraska-Kearney’s staff with Martin.

Colorado Mesa will play at Fort Lewis next season.


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