Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes had a checklist as he embarked on a coaching search in the late fall of 2017. It included many of the standard boxes (integrity, leadership capacity, communication skills) and several boxes specific to the OSU football program.
“We wanted stability, somebody we knew would dig their heels in and build it back up,” Barnes said earlier this week. “Because we were at rock bottom.”
Barnes also wanted a head coach who valued roster balance and would make use of both transfers (for immediate help) and high-school prospects (foundation pieces). And he needed someone who knew the formula for success at Oregon State. “Someone with a conviction for this place,” Barnes explained. “That’s the engine that revs the machine.”
Jonathan Smith has done exactly that in his three-plus seasons at his alma mater, turning the floundering program into a contender. After back-to-back victories over traditional tormentors USC and Washington, the Beavers (4-1, 2-0) are alone in first place in the North.
“Football is like an aircraft carrier,” Barnes said. “It takes time to turn the thing, particularly with where we were.”
But the decision to hire Smith did more than set the stage for Oregon State’s transformation. It altered the balance of power in the division by weakening a competitor.
Smith spent four years as Washington’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator before taking charge in Corvallis. The Huskies have yet to adequately replace him.
When asked if that was part of his plan, Barnes demurred.
“What you think about is your own program and where you want to take it,” he said. “If you have the right plan, everything will take care of itself. Our focus is on how we can be the best we can be.”
But Barnes wasn’t ignorant of the role Smith played in Washington’s success under former coach Chris Petersen. In fact, he spoke to Petersen about Smith during the search.
“We wanted to be very diligent, and we talked to people who worked with Jonathan and had mentored Jonathan,” Barnes said. “So in terms of Chris Petersen, yes. I spent time with him.”
At the time, Smith was finishing his fourth season in Seattle. The impact of his location change is clear in each program’s yards-per-play average, which is arguably the best indicator of offensive efficiency because it accounts for differences in tempo.
— Washington’s national ranking in average yards per play (Smith’s seasons as offensive coordinator in bold)
2020: 39th (four games)
— Oregon State’s national ranking in average yards-per-play (Smith’s seasons as head coach in bold)
2020: 51st (seven games)
“Jonathan Smith is a great play-caller,” Fox analyst and former USC running back Petros Papadakis said. “He has done it everywhere he’s been.”
Technically, Smith doesn’t call the plays for the Beavers — that responsibility falls to coordinator Brian Lindgren. But the Beavers run Smith’s offense, and he’s heavily involved in crafting the gameplan and every in-game decision.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, the situation is grim.
The Huskies hired Bush Hamdan to replace Smith before the start of the 2018 season. He lasted two years under Petersen — and endured significant criticism — but didn’t survive the transition to Jimmy Lake.
Perhaps he should have.
In arguably his most important staff decision, Lake, whose expertise is on the defensive side, hired John Donovan to run the offense. The move was greeted with skepticism in football circles. Donovan had been fired by Penn State after the 2015 season, then spent three years in secondary positions on the Jacksonville Jaguars staff.
In seven games (over two seasons) against Power Five competition, Donovan’s offense has scored 30 points or more in regulation time just once — last year, against an Arizona defense that gave up an average of 40 per game.
Huskies fans would take Smith back in less than a heartbeat.
“Jonathan had a plan,” Barnes said, “and part of that was his ability to hire and the network he had within the coaching community. We knew he would be capable of hiring a good staff.”
Not only does Smith’s staff fully buy into the system, the system makes optimum use of the talent. The reverse is true, as well: The staff has a keen eye for talent that fits the system.
That harmonious convergence — the full alignment of OSU’s playbook, recruiting pool and talent evaluation process — has created one of the most efficient offenses in the conference.
“We figured this would take about four years,” Barnes said.
“There are signs that don’t show up as wins at the beginning, things like the culture you establish and the ability to retain coaches. What happens in the classroom. The player development aspect.
“All those things are signs of a developing program that maybe aren’t obvious on the outside.
“In Year Two, we got some wins. Year Three was a little crazy (2020). And now in Year Four, it’s early, but you’re starting to see the fruits of all that work come together.”
And in Seattle, the frustration mounts.