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Louisville gets OK from USU to pursue John L.

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Now that Louisville has fired coach Ron Cooper, the way has been cleared for Utah State coach John L. Smith to take the job - if he wants it.

According to Utah State athletic director Chuck Bell, the job is Smith's for the taking. That's the strong impression Bell got after talking to Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich Thursday when Jurich called to ask permission to discuss the open position with Smith. Bell said Jurich has focused in on Smith and received permission from the Louisville administration not to go through a long process to select a coach.Bell was in the Atlanta airport on his way back from Florida with the Aggie basketball team when he got a call on his cell phone from Jurich.

"He officially asked permission to talk to John L.," said Bell. "I asked if they could wait until after the bowl game (Humanitarian Bowl Dec. 29), but they're hoping they can have somebody by next week."

Although he'd dearly love to keep Smith, whom he has signed to a "lifetime contract," Bell said he wouldn't stand in the way of Smith moving on.

"This is an opportunity for John L. to make a career step," said Bell. "He and his staff deserve every consideration in the world."

Bell talked to Smith Thursday afternoon and said he hasn't made a decision yet.

Smith prefers not to discuss the matter publicly, especially because his team is preparing for a game Saturday at North Texas. However, he did issue a statement Thursday afternoon concerning the Louisville job.

"I know that my name is being mentioned in the media in connection with the opening at the University of Louisville. Right now I don't have any comment on that situation. We have an important football game coming up Saturday with North Texas, and that is all I am focusing on at this moment."

Both Bell and Smith are well-acquainted with Jurich, who left Colorado State this fall to take over the reins at Louisville. Jurich was formerly the athletic director at Northern Arizona of the Big Sky when Smith was in the same league as the head coach at Idaho.

Smith, who is 16-16 in three years at USU, signed a seven-year contract with a "rollover" that can keep him in Logan for many years to come. He also gets an annuity of approximately $250,000 if he stays for at least five years. Bell said USU has "maximized our efforts" to keep Smith and "he knows that." In other words, Smith won't use the Louisville or any other job offer as leverage for a better contract.

Smith makes just under $100,000 a year at USU, while Cooper's salary was in the $300,000 to $400,000 range, according to the Lousville Courier-Journal.

Bell said he hopes Smith won't take the Louisville job and will get an even better opportunity down the road, perhaps in the Pac-10. There have been rumors that Mike Price might leave Washington State and that Smith would be a natural fit since he used to coach at nearby Idaho. Bell also wonders if Smith, an avid skier, would want to leave this part of the country.

"The skiing is really lousy in Louisville," said Bell with a laugh.