Alan Haller’s search for Jonathan Smith began on his walks up the Spartan Stadium steps this season, heading from the field to the press box before halftime. He’d walk the same aisle each week. See the same faces in the stands.
“Every game, they'd still show up,” Michigan State’s athletic director said Monday afternoon, the day before introducing Smith as MSU’s new head football coach. “I still remember the sadness. (And thinking) ‘It’s important that we get the right person to change that.’ ”
Haller had a sense that he’d found that person even before he met Smith in person, through multiple conversations — about Smith’s values and coaching philosophy and what his staff might look like. You know, the normal interview topics.
By the time Haller and MSU deputy athletic director Jen Smith flew out to Oregon and sat down with Smith and his wife Candice, the important questions had long since been answered.
“This was just four people sitting down, talking about life, and what's important to us,” Haller said. “I was visualizing Tom and Lupe (Izzo), to be honest. … When you meet (Jonathan and Candice), you’re going to see two people that, one, care about each other, but really care about their surroundings and other people.”
This is a big moment for Haller, the most important hire of his career to date. A decision that’ll shape the health, perception and profile of MSU athletics for years to come.
“I understand this is the last football coach I’ll hire at Michigan State,” Haller said. “Whether I get let go or leave on my own, I probably won’t get the opportunity to hire another coach. Nothing is guaranteed, but I wanted to give every effort to get this right.”
Haller spoke with conviction when he introduced Smith on Tuesday at Breslin Center, like an athletic director who’d landed the coach and person he set out to find.
Smith came across just as authentic. There was a charm to what appeared to be nerves on stage at his introductory press conference, like someone who’s more comfortable coaching football than selling his abilities to do so. He was emotional when talking about his family, like he'd just uprooted them from the only coast they’d ever known. His slogans were humble: “Low ego, high output.”
His only sales pitch was directed at MSU’s current and perhaps future players, including the program’s two young quarterbacks who, along with a growing list of MSU players, have announced they intend to jump into the transfer portal when it opens next week. Smith sounded understanding and patient, like the door was open if they choose to stay. Just be ready to go in January.
“I think we are going to run a style of play that the quarterback can have some real, real success,” Smith said. “I think being the starting quarterback at Michigan State is an unbelievable opportunity and that opportunity's there for who's in our locker room starting in January. I'll say this, not just specifically to the quarterback position, but in general, this day and age in college football, there's opportunities there in regards to weighing your options, fresh start somewhere else. All of the current players have (been) unsettled the last year, and so that's not totally surprising for guys to maybe want to explore an option or two. I get that.
"We really want to support those that want to be in that locker room in January. I’ve got a firm belief we can hit the ground running and do something special.”
Smith was a quarterback himself, a walk-on who became a starter at Oregon State, and a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator before he became the head coach at his alma mater in 2018.
He took over an Oregon State team that had been 1-11 the year before he arrived and, in his last two seasons, went 18-7, before leaving last weekend for MSU.
Haller wanted a someone who’d been a head coach. Someone who didn’t need every advantage to build a program. He wanted the right fit, the right person.
“I couldn’t just go after a good coach or results. Those mattered. But there were other things that were important to us at this time,” Haller said, 11 weeks after removing former head coach Mel Tucker for misconduct, amid a Title IX investigation that determined Tucker violated MSU’s sexual harassment policy.
Like the last search, which wound up with Tucker in February 2020, the timing of this one was unusual. The pace less hurried, but more stressful, Haller said, because it was more delicate. He had a lot of time to get it right and a lot of time for it to go wrong.
He had been part of the searches that landed Mark Dantonio and Tucker and had learned how difficult it was to keep it all under wraps.
“With Mel, I remember walking out of the interview with him in Colorado, and one of our area’s reporters tweeted it like five minutes out. I'm like, ‘This is nuts,’ ” Haller said. “I do think because of the leaks last time, one of the candidates dropped out. So I think it was important because of the length of this process, it had to be kept confidential, because all of these coaches that we talked to were sitting coaches currently, power five coaches doing well. They would have dropped out if their names had been formally attached to a search.”
So while Haller leaned on a group of advisors — including former and current MSU student-athletes — in building the profile, and on Dantonio for guidance about things that really mattered, he did the early stages of the search — the research phase — all on his own. He came up with a list of 12 and narrowed it to five, each of whom he interviewed on Zoom. That’s when he brought in a couple other trusted colleagues, including Jen Smith.
She and Haller flew to see two finalists, beginning with Jonathan Smith.
“I took the one person that covers my blind spot, that's Jen Smith,” Haller said. “She thinks opposite of me a lot in these types of things. And she's able to throw things out there (to counter things) I get too excited about. She's been here for so long. She's seen everything. She approaches things really totally opposite of me, but in alignment with me. And then she reminds me of the things that I said were important.”
Jonathan Smith and Haller were in alignment, too — about other sports being important, about why sports and football exist on campus, “So people can feel a sense of pride, and as they look through the lens of athletics, they feel a certain way about MSU,” Haller said.
Haller was scheduled to go see a third finalist, but time was of the essence. He’d known for a couple weeks he wanted Jonathan Smith.
“I was like, ‘What am I doing? Like, he's it.’ ” Haller said. “I didn't want to keep him out there for any amount of time. I didn't want anybody else to swoop in.”
Haller didn't know if a school like UCLA would open up. Smith grew up in Pasadena, on the doorstep of the Rose Bowl. There would be some degree of fit there, too.
There was a lot of talk of fit during Tuesday’s press conference. MSU's new football coach seems to fit MSU in every way, except for his ties to the school or the Midwest. He said Tuesday that he’ll work around that in how he builds his staff, which might include a couple coaches from the former staff. Haller had to get past the lack of ties and did because of how Smith fit in other ways, including understanding the MSU-Michigan rivalry without ever having experienced it.
“He played at Oregon State and he's coached there and speaking to him, that's as heated a rivalry (with Oregon) as it is here between Michigan and Michigan State,” Haller said. “He understood an in-state rivalry and competing against an institution that might have more resources. He understands the underdog mentality, the blue collar-workers mentality through the lens of Oregon-Oregon State.
“You don't have to have the hatred for Michigan or you don't have to have all the past knowledge. You just have to understand there's somebody up the street that sometimes looks down on us, and we want to beat them.”
Smith might not have all the resources at MSU, but he’ll have more than he had at Oregon State, including a seven-year contact that starts at $7.25 million per year, a smidgen more than what MSU itself was paying Tucker annually, pre-donor support. That should put him in the upper half of Big Ten coaches’ salaries as the league expands to 18.
“I started talking about resources and things that we were going to provide and could provide if he needed,” Haller said, “and he was like, ‘Look, Alan, I know how many people are in your football building right now. I don't need that many people. I know what my (staff) salary pool is. But I don't know that I need to spend all that money.’ He's really, really tuned into that and doesn't want to do things just because other people are doing them. That's the value of coming from Oregon State. The guy literally was building that thing and sustaining that thing off of half the resources on his counterpart up the street in Oregon.”
It all played out exactly as Haller intended — no one broke the story, no one knew for sure what was coming, except him and Jonathan Smith and his family.
Haller was a big part of the Tucker hire, before he was athletic director. He's made a few promising hires since he's been AD, including hockey coach Adam Nightingale. This hire, though, is his legacy.
“I knew what I wanted two weeks out,” Haller said. “And I knew that was how it was going to play out. But keeping that quiet and still being in a supportive environment of what was going on (at MSU) was a challenge. Those are difficult conversations that had to be had.”
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Michigan State football coach Jonathan Smith is Alan Haller's legacy