Lyle Smith last coached a college football game nearly 50 years ago — and yet he receives much of the credit for the Boise State football program’s modern success from the coaches who pushed the Broncos into the national limelight.
Smith, the legendary Boise Junior College football coach, died in his sleep at about 2 a.m. Wednesday in Boise, friend Michel Bourgeau said. Smith was 101 years old. A memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 3, in the Stueckle Sky Center at Boise State.
“He meant everything to this program,” junior quarterback Brett Rypien said. “Obviously a very sad day around the Boise State community, because Lyle Smith was the picture of Boise State football, the legend of Boise State football and represented everything I think this program wants to be.”
Smith built Boise Junior College into a football powerhouse and directed the athletic department’s transition to four-year competition. His success put Boise State on the path to a Division I-AA national championship and three Fiesta Bowl victories.
Smith accumulated a 156-25-6 record as the coach at BJC for 20 seasons from 1947 to 1967, then took over as athletic director as Boise State became a four-year program. He retired in the summer of 1981. Fittingly, in his final football season, the Broncos won the Division I-AA national championship. Smith’s Broncos won the National Junior College Athletic Association national championship in 1958.
“My first reaction, obviously, was, ‘Oh, no,’ ” said Chris Petersen, the former Boise State football coach who now leads the University of Washington program. “And then after you catch your breath, you think about just what an unbelievable life. As you go through (life) and the older you get, one of the most important things is just the impact you make on people you come in contact with. That’s what I think about Coach Smith — what an impact he had on Boise State, on the people he coached, or didn’t even coach but got to know.”
Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said Smith’s impact went “well beyond” football.
“Lyle is one of the maybe most unselfish people that I’ve been around and has this fantastic ability of making everyone around him feel good,” Harsin said. “An incredible memory for the guys that played ... you could see the emotion set back in, and it was genuine. It was unbelievable.”
Bourgeau, formerly the Varsity B coordinator at Boise State, witnessed many reunions between Smith and former players. Often, they ended with the former player telling Bourgeau the critical role Smith played in his life.
“They’d pull me aside and say, ‘Michel, you don’t realize how much that meant to me to have lunch with Lyle,’ ” Bourgeau said. “ ‘You don’t realize the impact that Lyle had on my life while I was at Boise Junior College trying to figure things out.’ ... Lyle’s reach with his former players and the people he touched was very powerful.”
After he retired, Smith remained a common sight around Boise State. He worked out at the football team’s facility and frequently came to practices, including one March 17, 2016 — the day of his 100th birthday. He spoke to the team that day and was given a Boise State jersey with the No. 100 on it. It had become tradition for the players to sing him “Happy Birthday” at practice.
The Broncos’ famous blue turf bears his name: It has been Lyle Smith Field since it was installed in 1986, with his name in the northeast and southwest corners of the field between the 20-yard line and the end zone.
On Sept. 8, Boise State dedicated a statue of Smith in front of the Allen Noble Hall of Fame, with the former coach in attendance. Five members of that 1958 championship team helped with the reveal.
“It takes so much momentum and such a foundation for things to really take off, and he’s the guy that laid that foundation at Boise State for the rest of us to take it and run with it,” said Petersen, who was the Broncos’ offensive coordinator from 2001 to 2005 and head coach from 2006 to 2013.
Smith continued to leave his mark on the program through speeches to the players, Harsin said.
“He’s physically older right now but they could all envision right then and there this guy standing up in front of them and leading,” Harsin said. “So, instant respect at that point for those guys who haven’t met him. And they looked forward to seeing him.”
One speech in particular sticks out to Harsin. Smith addressed the team before the 2015 season-opening game against Washington and the Broncos’ former coach, Petersen.
“The fire came out,” Harsin said. “He shot a few words in there — they were respectful — and our guys absolutely lost it. At that point, it was like, ‘There’s the coach.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Dirk Koetter, the Broncos’ head coach from 1998 to 2000 and now coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL, considered Smith an idol while growing up in Pocatello.
“When you think about how far back Coach Smith goes and where the program started and where it is today, and the guy that was there for all of it was Lyle Smith,” Koetter said. “... A builder — a guy that saw the transition from two-year school to a four-year school and later became the AD, and then from a builder to an ambassador. You couldn’t ask for a better ambassador for Boise State football and for Boise State University. A first-class guy all the way.”
Rypien said Smith’s passing will provide “more motivation to get back to that Bronco way that Coach Smith always talked about.” The Broncos haven’t won a conference title since 2014.
“This is a big loss, but at the same time, his life will be remembered as one of the most positive guys I ever got a chance to talk to,” Rypien said. “The way he talked about Boise State football, the attitude he brought to everything we faced the past couple years, was always positive, always pro-Bronco.”
‘He expected you to be tough’
Smith arrived at Boise Junior College in 1946 as the basketball coach and assistant football coach. Smith had big dreams for the Broncos, but he never imagined anything like the 2007 Fiesta Bowl win against Oklahoma.
“The past pales when we consider what’s going on now,” Smith said in a 2007 interview for the Idaho Statesman book “Blue Magic.” “But it’s been a privilege to have been a small part of the thing.”
He took over the football program in 1947, a program that had posted six losing seasons in 10 years.
For the next 34 years — with Smith as the football coach, then as the athletic director — the Broncos never endured a losing football season.
The program jumped from junior college to NCAA Division II to Division I-AA. Bronco Stadium was built, rebuilt and expanded. Smith hired the two football coaches that followed him, and they combined for a 130-40-2 record. Even George Blankley, the assistant who replaced Smith for a year and a half, went 16-1.
“You talk about the football culture of a place, which is the attitude and the work ethic and the feelings about football, and certainly it all started with (Smith),” Petersen said. “The other guys that have taken the reins since then have been able to hang onto that culture.”
Smith cultivated the toughness and blue-collar attitude that defined the program’s rise. He emphasized conditioning and hard-nosed football during an era when the forward pass was a trick play, and he did not tolerate any letdowns in effort.
“He expected you to be tough, to get hurt and get up and finish strong,” said Rich Urresti, a Boise businessman who played for Smith in 1962-63. “I learned that from him — how to finish strong.”
Urresti described Smith as “stern but fair.” His conditioning drills chased off plenty of players and the practices were intensely physical, Urresti said, but the results validated the price.
“What he said, he meant,” Urresti said. “If you believed, you won, and if you didn’t believe, you didn’t play.”
If Smith was unhappy with a player’s performance in practice, he handed him dirty or battered equipment for practice the next day.
On the sideline, Smith’s displeasure sometimes resulted in a hat stomp or a clipboard toss — antics Smith says he rarely used.
“One time, I think it was against Taft, Calif., they fumbled, we fumbled, they fumbled, and we fumbled,” Smith said. “With that, my clipboard went into orbit. That damn clip, when it got up there at the peak, somehow it let go, and all those papers came loose. And here I am standing all alone, and the papers are coming down. I’ve never forgotten that. I hear people say it like it happened every day, but it happened once.”
Players say Smith’s emotions got the best of him more often than that. Bill Smith, Smith’s son and a two-way player for the Broncos in 1963-64, remembers his dad taking out his frustration on his trademark blue fedora.
“That poor old hat took a beating a few times,” Bill said.
Petersen expected to hear stories like that about Smith, whom he grew to admire over his 13 years on the Broncos’ coaching staff. Winning, Petersen knows, sometimes requires a sharp edge.
“He seems like the nicest guy you could ever be around, and I know that’s not the case to win as many games as he’s won,” Petersen said. “That’s not how it works. I’m sure he was, back in his day, very driven, very focused.”
Bill didn’t discover his dad’s competitiveness until he joined the Broncos football team. His dad didn’t bring football home with him, although he did push his three children to excel in school.
“If there was not a stack of books on the dining room table when he got home, you answered for that,” said Bill, who became a college football coach, too. “The idea of, ‘Hey, I didn’t have any homework’ didn’t cut it. He’d always ask, ‘Are you making straight A’s?’ The answer to that was always no. ‘Then you’ve got something to do,’ he’d say.”
Even when Smith made a brief stint as the Boise State baseball coach in the early 1970s, he knew how to push buttons.
“He was already a legend. His football history was well-known at that time,” said Karl Benson, the Sun Belt Conference commissioner who played baseball at Boise State.
Smith recruited Benson from Spokane Falls Community College in Washington. When Benson arrived on campus, he marveled at the 70-degree weather in March.
“Is the weather like this all the time?” Benson asked. “Typical March weather,” Smith replied.
That was enough to convince Benson.
“I can’t tell you how many times we had to shovel snow,” Benson said.
Smith gave Benson another taste of his quick wit. Slow-footed Benson was on second base when a teammate got a hit to left field. Smith, coaching third base, waved him home. Halfway there, it became apparent that Benson wasn’t going to make it.
“He’s out by 20 feet,” Smith said to the dugout. Indeed, Benson was.
‘Back into jock straps and T-shirts’
Smith was born in 1916 in Steptoe, Wash., a tiny town south of Spokane, and he grew up in the North Idaho town of Moscow. He was a standout on the football field and the basketball court, helping the Moscow High Bears win two basketball state titles.
He began his college career at the University of Idaho Southern Branch in Pocatello, a two-year school that grew to become Idaho State, then transferred back home to the University of Idaho in Moscow. He played football and basketball at both schools.
Smith earned a physical education degree from Idaho in 1939. He took a job as a football coach, basketball coach and physical education teacher at Moscow High in 1941 after a short stint in the car business.
“The call to get back into jock straps and T-shirts was too much,” he said.
He joined the military in 1942 after learning that the Navy needed physical education instructors to work with pilots. He returned to Idaho in 1946. He wrapped up his master’s degree at Idaho and was ready to go back to Moscow High when Boise Junior College hired him as the assistant basketball coach.
BJC opened on Sept. 6, 1932, with fewer than 100 students and began playing intercollegiate football in 1933.
“There were six buildings on campus when I got here,” Smith said.
His arrival coincided with a wave of potential football players returning upon the conclusion of World War II — and Smith proved an effective recruiter.
The Broncos were 2-4-2 in 1946 under Harry Jacoby. Smith went 28-0 in his first three seasons and won his first 39 games overall, starting in 1947. The Broncos won the 1949 Potato Bowl in Bakersfield, Calif., and fans met the team bus at the edge of town — the humble beginnings of Bronco Nation. Fans also held a ceremony honoring the team at the Capitol.
“We were lucky in getting some good kids,” Smith said. “They just kind of jelled and took off from there.”
The stadium in the 1940s, which featured bleachers that held about 1,000 people, was built in the same spot as the current Student Union Building. The Potato Bowl triumph prompted construction of a new 10,800-seat wooden stadium on the site of the current Albertsons Stadium.
And the winning continued.
The Broncos earned a bid to the 1950 Junior Rose Bowl with a 9-0 record despite losing Smith to the Navy in the middle of the season. Smith, who coached the football team at the Navy base in San Diego during his second tour, watched from the stands as his Broncos lost to Long Beach City College in front of more than 47,000 fans in Pasadena, Calif. It was the team’s first loss since Smith became the coach.
Smith returned to Boise Junior College in 1952 and led the Broncos to 59 wins over the next seven seasons. He also earned a reputation as a coach whom players could count on for wins and parents could trust with their sons.
Athletes at the time received scholarships to pay for school. Smith helped them pay the rest of their bills by arranging part-time jobs. Many of them landed jobs driving school buses — with the football and basketball teams trading shifts to accommodate each other’s practice schedules.
Smith built his program by recruiting players in bunches from places like Vale, Ore., Hawaii, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Those players told their friends, opening pipelines.
“Lyle’s kind of like your dad,” said Dave Wilcox, who played at Boise Junior College in 1960 and 1961, the only Bronco in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the father of former Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. “He’d take care of you. All the people around there knew that if you went to school at BJC on the football team, Lyle was going to take care of you and make sure you did things right. People trusted him a lot, and deservedly so. He always did what he said he was going to do.”
The peak of the Broncos’ junior college era came in 1958, an undefeated season that wouldn’t be matched by a Bronco team for nearly 50 years — until the 2007 Fiesta Bowl win.
The Broncos rolled through the 1958 season, going 10-0 by outscoring opponents 411-67. The team was so deep that Smith rotated three entire units onto the field depending on the situation.
The single-wing offense, an old-time rushing attack that looked more like a rugby scrum than modern football, was unstoppable.
“We had some pretty crazy scores,” said Lenny Chow, who was a two-way lineman on the 1958 team. “... We ran, and we ran, and we ran some more.”
The Broncos qualified for the National Junior College Athletic Association championship game, which was in its third year, and were selected to host the game. They throttled Tyler (Texas) Junior College 22-0 in front of about 9,000 fans on Thanksgiving Day.
“We conked their quarterback pretty early,” Smith said. “It probably would have been tougher if we didn’t.”
Stepping aside as program grows
Boise State athletics began its transition to the four-year university level in 1968. Smith stepped down as the football coach at the age of 51 and became the full-time athletic director. He hired his college teammate at the University of Idaho, Tony Knap, to run the football program.
“I thought if I stayed as the football coach, we would have stayed a junior college in people’s concept,” Smith said. “And I think I was right. ... I knew (Knap) was a good football man.”
Knap installed a wide-open passing attack that quickly delivered results. His teams were 17-3 during two seasons (1968-1969) in limbo between the NAIA, a smaller athletic association, and the NCAA.
Boise State entered the NCAA Division II Big Sky Conference in 1970 and dominated that league with titles in 1973, 1974 and 1975. The Broncos reached the Division II playoff semifinals in 1973.
Smith, who opened the concrete Albertsons Stadium with 14,500 seats in 1970 and expanded it to 20,000 in 1974, got the most out of the athletic department — just as he had with his players.
“He could make a dollar go longer than anybody I ever knew,” Urresti said. “He could stretch a dollar from here to Caldwell. ... He would buy 10 things where most people would buy two.”
Smith retired from the athletic department in the summer of 1981 at 65.
He watched in awe as the Broncos pulled out the hook-and-lateral, halfback pass and Statue of Liberty handoff to beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
“That had to be an experience I’ll take to the grave,” Smith said. “I still see the hook-and-ladder. And I still see that two-point conversion. I can’t figure that out yet. ... I got such a charge out of it because I’m looking down there, and I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”
The growth in the Broncos program is just as difficult to fathom. Oklahoma was the nation’s most powerful college football program in the 1950s, when Smith was stalking the sidelines in Boise. Five decades later, Boise State was better than the Sooners — at least for a day.
“For a person to have invested as much of their life in a place as Dad has and to see that culmination was phenomenal,” said Bill Smith, who sat with his dad at the Fiesta Bowl.
Smith, who has witnessed every bit of the Broncos’ success, had just one explanation for why the program succeeded at every level and avoided any sustained downturn since the 1930s and early 1940s.
“The winning spirit, the winning idea,” he said, “it’s contagious.”