Michigan State has hired Jonathan Smith as its next football coach, the school announced on Saturday. Smith, 44, has spent the past six seasons as coach at Oregon State where he’s guided the Beavers to 18 wins over the past two seasons, including a 10-3 mark and No. 17 finish in the AP Top 25 during a 2022 campaign that earned him Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors.
Smith was among the initial pool of candidates linked to the Michigan State opening after the Spartanswith cause midseason amid sexual harassment allegations. Smith later to replace Tucker during the final week of the regular season, which saw Oregon State suffer a 31-7 loss at rival Oregon.
“Jonathan has a proven track record of success, building the Oregon State program from the ground up by implementing a plan resulting in sustained historic success for the Beavers,” said Michigan State athletic director Alan Haller in announcing the hire. “He’s been a part of championship staffs, coached in the College Football Playoff, and understands what’s required to be successful at the highest level, learning from some of the game’s most successful coaches.
“On the field, his teams are tough and physical, yet innovative. This year, Oregon State has controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, ranking among the nation’s leaders in both rushing offense and rushing defense. He’s shown not only the ability to recruit talented student-athletes who fit his system, but also to develop and maximize players once they’re in the program.”
Smith, a former quarterback for the Beavers from 1998-2001, exits Oregon State with a 34-35 overall mark as coach, including a 1-1 record in bowl games, as he now joins the Big Ten coaching ranks.
“As I start this next chapter of my coaching career, I want to first thank all the players, coaches and colleagues I have worked with the last six years,” Smith said in a statement posted to social media. “I will cherish the memories and friendships. I also want to express my deepest gratitude to the people of OSU/Corvallis for your support. When I first arrived as a freshman college student, I had no idea the opportunities and relationships this community would provide for me and my family. The collective impact you have made makes it impossible to thank everyone individually, but I am forever grateful.”
Oregon State left in dust amid uncertain future
Although Smith narrowly finished below. 500 in six seasons at the helm in Corvallis, Oregon, the Beavers made clear progress during the back half of his tenure. Smith guided Oregon State to seven victories in 2021 after the program went 9-22 during his first three years. The 2022 season, which marked the Beavers’ first 10-win season since 2006 and highest AP Top 25 finish since 2000, resulted in a contract extension for Smith through February 2029 that bumped his annual salary to $4.85 million. Oregon State then started the 2023 season 8-2 before dropping back-to-back games against Washington and Oregon.
Earlier in the week, Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnesto reach a contract extension with Smith as speculation of this move began to grow. In a statement Saturday after Smith’s departure was finalized, Barnes thanked him for his efforts at Oregon State as the Beavers now embark on the search for Smith’s replacement.
“Coach Smith and his staff worked tirelessly to rebuild the culture at Oregon State, both on the field and in the classroom,” Barnes said. “All of Beaver Nation should thank him for the lasting legacy he has left to his alma mater and wish him and his family nothing but the best moving forward.”
Smith held multiple assistant jobs from 2002-17 before returning to his alma mater as coach in 2018. Smith spent six seasons as an assistant under former college football coach Chris Petersen, first as Boise State’s quarterbacks coach from 2012-13 and then as Washington’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 2014-17. His time in Seattle included a Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff berth for Washington during the 2016 season.
Smith’s exit from Oregon State comes at a point where the Beavers face much uncertainty as the Pac-12 prepares to lose 10 of its 12 members ahead of the 2024 season. Oregon State and Washington State are the only schools in the conference that have not been picked up by other power leagues. Four Pac-12 members — USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon — will join Smith in the Big Ten next fall.
Can Smith turn the Michigan State program around?
The task now for Smith is revitalizing a Michigan State program that has struggled to field consistent success in recent seasons. After winning 10 or more games six times in a span of eight seasons under former coach Mark Dantonio from 2010-17, the Spartans have only won more than seven games in a season once since then, finishing 11-2 under Tucker’s second year at the helm in 2021.
What seemed to be a breakthrough season for Tucker in 2021 earned him a 10-year contract extension worth $95 million, but Tucker’s remaining tenure in East Lansing was all downhill afterwards. Michigan State regressed to 5-7 in 2022 before allegations of sexual harassment surrounding Tucker against rape survivor and activist Brenda Tracy emerged just two games into the 2023 season. Tucker was promptly suspended before the school fired him with cause several weeks later. The Spartans went on to finish 4-8 with assistant Harlon Barnett serving as interim coach the rest of the way, ending the season with a 42-0 loss to Penn State on Friday.
While Michigan State has found itself playing in a stacked Big Ten East division for roughly the last decade — Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State have all been annual opponents — that will change in Smith’s debut season as the Big Ten expands and does away with divisions. Smith will also get the chance to face some familiar opponents from his time at Oregon State given that four Pac-12 schools are joining the conference. As far as the 2024 season is concerned on that front, Michigan State still faces Ohio State and Michigan (the Wolverines are a protected rival) but avoids Penn State. Oregon is the only newcomer it will face next fall, with the Spartans set to travel to Eugene, Oregon, in early October.