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Archive for Saturday, November 1, 2003

Spartans looking down at Wolverines

Smith has ninth-ranked Michigan State rolling in first season in East Lansing

November 1, 2003

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— To John L. Smith, this is all so simple.

It's the reason his Michigan State football team is 7-1, the reason the Spartans have made a dramatic turnaround in one year and the reason a regional television audience will be watching today's game against Michigan.

"I told you guys, it's magic," Smith told reporters. "You don't believe it, do you?"

Week by week, more people are starting to believe. The Spartans sit No. 9 in this week's Associated Press poll, their highest ranking since they ended the 1999 season at No. 7. They are ranked ahead of Michigan going into this game for the first time since 1968, when they were No. 12 and UM was unranked.

The Wolverines are No. 11.

While Smith might believe in magic, an examination of his 10 months as MSU coach shows something more deliberate. It starts with a philosophy he preached at his three previous stops: Be responsible, accountable and work hard -- and the results will follow.

When Smith arrived in December, he took that message to the players, just as he did at Idaho, Utah State and Louisville, his previous fix-it situations.

"It's the thing he does before anyone's even played a down," said Tampa Bay Bucs assistant Art Valero, who was Smith's assistant at Idaho and Louisville. "The one thing he's going to force is, everybody's going to be held accountable."

In the beginning, that meant players met him at the Duffy Daugherty Football Building for 7 a.m. workouts in February. That's when Smith bounced up and down the halls, bellowing "Good morning" at the top of his lungs. Then he tested players by taking them onto the snowy practice field to run between cones. He also met with them, one by one, to get inside their lives.

"He doesn't play mind games," Valero said. "He gets the honesty and passion from his dad. He's so honest; it may not be what you want to hear, but it's the truth."

In the most public instance of tough love, quarterback Jeff Smoker got the message. Smoker was suspended for his substance-abuse problems last year. When Smith took over the team, Smoker had to prove his sobriety, attend early morning workouts with Smith watching, and perform community service at a homeless shelter.

Smoker lived up to Smith's standards and regained his starting spot, where he has returned to the form that made him one of the nation's hottest quarterbacks in 2001.

Smith's hard-line approach forced the rest of the Spartans to leave their comfort zones.

"You can monitor it a heck of a lot closer than they think you can," he said. "There are always people out there that once they realize you want to know, will let you know. Like one will call and say, 'We had 10 of your guys in my bar last night, Coach.' The kids are learning that we're not totally stupid and we know what's going on."

Accountability also started with details -- paying library fines, parking tickets and outstanding rent and taking care of class scheduling. Some players had been a bit lax in those areas.

"Nobody had any discipline in being a grown-up, taking care of your responsibilities," defensive tackle Matthias Askew said.

That was apparent last season, when Michigan State went 4-8 and Bobby Williams was fired as coach after nine games.

Ask the players, and they rave about Smith's personality. They talk about the face slaps to show appreciation, the stern voice offset by a disarming wink and the open-door policy that players have embraced, knowing they will hear straightforward talk.

Everyone is equal, he tells his players. Us against the world. It seems to be working.

The Spartans will enter today's game loose, because that's how their coach lays it out. By this point, they will believe almost anything he tells them. And against Michigan?

"We'll have to pull out another rabbit," Smith said.

Around East Lansing, Spartan fans are starting to believe as well.

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