One of the hallmarks of Lyle Smith’s football teams was fitness: He whipped the players into shape — and prepared them to finish strong.
The Navy man, who helped fellow sailors get in fighting shape during World War II and the Korean War, has practiced what he preached.
A half century later, he’s still at it.
Smith, who turns 100 on Thursday, is more active than many people half his age. He typically works out three days a week at the university — two days at the student recreation center and one day at the Bleymaier Football Center, the latter at football coach Bryan Harsin’s urging.
“I’m not getting anywhere,” Smith joked last week while pedaling an exercise bike in the football center, which sits along the Boise River. “I can’t even get to the river.”
Smith became a Boise Junior College and Boise State legend for his winning ways as a football coach and athletic director from the late 1940s until his retirement in 1981. He earned undying loyalty from many players for the way he coached.
There’s not many who are like Lyle Smith.
Dave Wilcox, NFL Hall of Famer who played for Smith in 1960-61
Smith didn’t lose a game until his fourth season. In 1958, his 10-0 team won a national junior college championship. He was athletic director when the team won the NCAA Division I-AA national championship in 1980, and he still wears the ring with pride.
Smith’s record as football coach at Boise Junior College: 156 wins, 25 losses, 5 ties
Smith is an Idaho icon, and recognized in the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Hall of Fame, as well as halls of fame at Boise State and Idaho State.
Inside the multimillion dollar Bleymaier Football Center, he mingles with student-athletes and works with a trainer.
“I appreciate this guy,” Smith said to a beaming Brandon Pringle, assistant strength coach for the Broncos, during a 30-minute workout.
Smith, who until last year was still driving, visits football practice about once a week. He goes to Boise State men’s basketball games and, of course, football games. After all, his name is on the blue turf, and he’s got a great view from his box seat.
He follows former Boise State players in the NFL, including Matt Paradis of the Denver Broncos.
“I’m thrilled for this young guy from Council. Isn’t that a beautiful story?” he said. “A kid out of a small high school, and here he is.”
I never realized how competitive he was. He never brought it home. ... When you got down to business on the field, he was an amazing competitor. That was really an eye-opener to me. That was a side I’d never seen until I played for him.
Bill Smith, the eldest of Smith’s three children
JUNIOR COLLEGE ROOTS
Smith, who grew up in Moscow and earned his degree in physical education from the University of Idaho, coached a couple of years at the high school level and then joined the Naval Reserve during World War II. He served about 3.5 years on active duty and then returned to civilian life, finishing his master’s in education from Idaho.
He was hired by Boise Junior College in 1946, starting off as basketball coach and assistant football coach but later also coaching baseball.
When he started at the junior college, the gymnasium for student-athletes was an old hangar, and the players’ dressing room was an old tool room. The youngest of Smith’s three children, Larry, recalled watching football games in the wooden stadium that came before Bronco Stadium (now Albertsons Stadium), both of which were built during Smith’s tenure.
“I can still remember all the splinters,” Larry Smith said.
Larry, 59, and his siblings, Marge, 66, and Bill, 70, all of whom live in other states, will be in Boise to celebrate their father’s 100th birthday. Smith’s excited to see his seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild, too.
His children spoke with the Idaho Statesman about what it was like growing up with Smith. They recalled their dad setting up a reel-to-reel projector in their home living room during the Sundays of their youth to watch footage of the previous day’s game.
“Dad would be reviewing and seeing what went right or wrong, and how do we plan for practice accordingly,” Bill Smith said. “It was a fun time for all of us.”
He would watch it again on Sunday nights, meticulously going over the game film for what could be learned, Marge said.
Before he became a coach, Smith was himself a standout athlete at Moscow High. He was a center on the football team and led his basketball team to two state championships. But he didn’t push his children into sports, they said.
“My sophomore year in high school, he sat me down and said, ‘Hey, don’t ever play the game just because I’m a coach, and you feel like you’re obligated,’ ” Bill Smith recalled. “ ‘Make sure it’s something you want to do, and it’s fun for you. ... Don’t just play just because I’m a coach.’
“He was very empathic about making that point.”
Bill Smith played football for his father at Boise Junior College in 1963-64 (like his dad and brother, he played center), then transferred to the University of Oregon. He played one year in the NFL, for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
GREAT COACH, BETTER PERSON
Lyle Smith is to Boise State what John Wooden is to UCLA. They were unbelievable coaches and better human beings. That’s what really sets Lyle apart. It’s who he is as a person.
Gene Bleymaier, former longtime athletic director at Boise State
As a coach, Smith was intense, focused and demanding. He famously tossed his clipboard and stomped his blue fedora a few times, but he wasn’t volatile. He also wasn’t a screamer, the stereotype of the modern football coach.
“He could make you feel lower than a snake’s butt with two words,” Bill Smith said, adding that his father was also very forgiving. “You could always work your way out of the doghouse.”
Gov. Butch Otter, who played spring ball for Smith in 1964 before deciding to go to the College of Idaho to finish his bachelor’s degree, recalled Smith being generous in handing out extra laps and sprints to players who had fallen short of expectations.
“Some of the guys that were in trouble most of the time were in the best shape,” he said, admitting he might have been one of those guys. He said the worst punishment was having to hold the tackle dummy.
Otter said Smith made it clear to the players that he cared about them — and their futures.
“He used to remind us that we were going to play football a couple years but we were going to spend the rest of our lives using what we learned in the classroom,” Otter said.
He cared about you not only in what kind of value you could bring to the gridiron. ... His avocation was just being a good mentor — in all of life.
Gov. Butch Otter, who played spring ball for Smith in 1964
Smith wore many hats during three and a half decades at Boise Junior College/Boise State University. He left his post as football coach after the 1967 season and became athletic director, a move he made as the school became a four-year institution. He also served as head of the athletics department and taught physical education classes.
Gary Craner, the Broncos’ former longtime athletic trainer, said Smith was a great administrator — a careful steward of the budget who looked for ways to save money. He questioned everything, including buying new elastic wraps.
“He said: ‘You order those every year. They don’t wear out, do they?’ He wanted me to keep them,” Craner recalled. He had to show Smith that they were completely worn out.
Smith’s attention to detail impressed those around him during his career. His memory for those details today amazes everyone.
“All the experiences and things he’d been through and to remember it all — I can hardly remember last year, let alone years ago,” said former Boise State football coach Chris Petersen, who is now at Washington. “... And what a good heart he has. I just like being around him. He brightened my day just being around him.”