clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

For Smith, life is more than football

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State coach John L. Smith sat in his office last week contemplating football — and life.

He has had plenty of big questions related to both this season, because his wife was diagnosed with cancer.

Diana Smith first got the news this summer, after a large tumor was removed from her colon during emergency surgery. The first diagnosis was that her case was terminal. But better news followed, giving the Smiths hope, and giving the typically upbeat, high-energy coach a new perspective on life.

"Di has kept us positive," Smith said. "And I guess I just refused to believe what we were being told. You go from terminal to a feeling that we can handle this — so you go from a dark day to a sunny day."

Smith, preparing his Spartans (4-3, 3-1 Big Ten) for Saturday's game against No. 12 Michigan (7-1, 5-0), has mixed feelings about his archrival these days. It was a University of Michigan medical team that gave the Smiths their best news in four months.

At first, doctors told the 55-year-old Diana Smith she had a stromal tumor — a rare but typically fatal type of cancer. The Mayo Clinic confirmed the diagnosis.

Unwilling to accept that determination, the Smiths turned elsewhere.

The team from the University of Michigan Medical Center determined the tumor could be of the desmoid variety, which is far less threatening. About two weeks ago, a team at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute agreed.

A desmoid tumor probably would reappear at the same spot and grow more slowly. It also would be more treatable with drugs.

A colon exam earlier this month "looked good," Smith said. The worst consequence for Diana Smith has been some anemia, but she hasn't missed a Spartans road trip this season. She even made the family's July trip to Africa, where the 55-year-old coach climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

"She's just gone on with life," Smith said. "She's out every day, taking care of everything."

Diana Smith protects her privacy and typically does not do interviews. But her husband says her positive attitude has helped him stay upbeat. The illness also has sparked some personal reflection for Smith, well-known for his humor and affection for his players.

The Smiths, married 34 years with three adult children, are both from Idaho Falls, Idaho. But they haven't had a well-defined home since Smith began his college coaching career as a graduate assistant at Weber State in 1971.

Assistant coaching jobs followed at Montana, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington State. Smith became Idaho's head coach in 1989, and led programs at Utah State and Louisville before moving to Michigan State after the 2002 season.

Roots became a troubling issue when Diana Smith got her first diagnosis.

Where should she be buried?

Who should be her pallbearers?

What about her will?

The Smiths sent one of their sons to Idaho to look for burial plots.

"She's asked me so many questions. I don't have the answers," Smith said. "And that's hard to deal with."

The consequences of coaching have taken a toll on his family life. Coaches can spend 18 hours or more a day on the job during the season, and the offseason also has busy stretches, including out-of-town recruiting trips.

Smith has been successful on the field. His 122 career wins rank 14th among active Division I-A coaches — just ahead of Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer and just behind Kansas State's Bill Snyder. But he worries his career has taken a toll on Diana and his children.

"You can't neglect any part of your family," Smith said. "I probably have neglected my own personal family more so than my other family, and I feel bad about that.

"It's put a new perspective on my thinking there. I spend more time and when I get the chance, I'm going to be with my wife, I'm going to be with my kids."

Michigan State players say Smith is doing that without shortchanging them.

"With all he is going through, he has stayed really focused," quarterback Drew Stanton said. "He's been great."

Outside Smith's office, defensive linemen Clifford Dukes and Kevin Vickerson sort though hard candy on a secretary's desk and wait for a chance to visit with their coach. Running back DeAndra Cobb stops by to say hello.

"It seems like every day I get up is a good day and a positive day and a sunny day," Smith said. "And I have 120 kids here. ... If you're not positive around them, then doggone it, it's going to make their day miserable. You better try and make their day as positive as you can."