IT WAS A PERFECT day in the Cache Valley. The sun shone gloriously, flooding the land with light. Inside the Spectrum, it was more of the same.
John L. Smith was named the newest football coach at Utah State University, Tuesday, giving rise to a wave of optimism at a school where hopes have been dashed regularly over the past 20 years. There were introductions and congratulations and promises. All in all, it was a fine way to begin a new year.As upbeat as the scene was, it wasn't unfamiliar. Keeping coaches and winning games at USU haven't been easy the last two decades. In fact, it hasn't ever been easy keeping coaches. In the school's 102 years of football, only Clayton Teetzel (1909-1915) and Bruce Snyder (1976-82) stayed seven years. The only coach to last longer was the venerable Dick Romney, who remained 29 years and got a football stadium named after him as a result.
It isn't as though nobody wants to work in Logan. It's just that nobody wants to stay. USU is a place where good coaches go to warm up. The school is notable for two things: a great place to work and a great place to look for another job.
Still, football thrived through the '60s and at various times during the '70s. Phil Krueger (1973-75) built a 21-12 record before the pressure of the job convinced him to become an assistant in the NFL. Snyder (1976-82) won seven games a couple of times but finished with a 37-38-2 overall record.
During Snyder's era, the Aggies hit a major snag. After the joining the PCAA - now the Big West - they were allowed two years in which they could sign double transfers, without the players losing a year of eligibility. But soon the Aggies were under the same restrictions as everyone else and their fortunes began to change. Snyder went 6-5, then 5-6 the last two years of his tenure before heading to the pros as an assistant coach, then on to Cal and Arizona State as a head coach.
The most likely candidate to stay permanently in Logan was Chris Pella, a Brigham City native who took the head coaching job in 1983. Though his loyalty to USU ran deep, he could only muster a 9-24 record and was fired after three seasons. Chuck Shelton (1986-91) made a six-year stand, despite just a 26-39 record. He willingly accepted the increasing budget constraints each year and remained a challenger in the race for the league title. But Shelton left in a huff because his contract wasn't extended before the start of the last year of his contract.
The latest vacancy materialized when Charlie Weatherbie left for Navy after reportedly becoming upset over USU'S continuing budget problems.
With coaches clamoring to move to such places as Stillwater, Oklahoma and Ames, Iowa, one has to wonder why Logan would have such a hard time keeping coaches. The answer is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to win there, given the constraints. With virtually no television or bowl revenue, USU football has a budget below that of most Division I-A schools. The athletic department has been strapped by financial problems for several years and is rumored to be hundreds of thousand of dollars in the red.
The coaching staff is near the bottom of the NCAA Division I-A ranks on the pay scale. Rather than dropping to I-AA status, USU continues along near the bottom of the I-A programs.
Such considerations didn't keep Smith, a highly regarded coach at Idaho, from taking the job. He says he has been promised the kind of backing required to get the Aggies winning again. "They're going to give us the opportunity to win here," he said. "I wouldn't have come if I didn't truly believe we have the opportunity to win."
It is unlikely Smith will remain more than a few years in Logan. If he wins, the Aggies can ill afford to match the salaries or resources of other programs, unless they start selling out every game and appearing regularly in bowl games. If he loses, he'll probably end up being fired.
Keeping Smith in Logan forever isn't the Aggies' primary concern, though. As athletic director Chuck Bell points out, "there's no such thing as a lifetime job." The main concern is getting back to winning.
Nobody, of course, was talking about budget deficits or losing records on the first day of Smith's new job. "I think we can compete for a league championship in the first year," Smith said.
Thus, the Aggies headed off into the future with a new coach and a dream. They may not keep him around forever, but if they can keep him long enough to find out what it's like to win on a regular basis, they'll be happy just the same.