Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin reflects on Lyle Smith's life
College football coaches don’t stop practice for much — unless it’s a butt-chewing.
The Boise State Broncos often stopped for Lyle Smith.
Smith, the legendary former coach and athletic director who died Wednesday at 101 years old, frequently visited practice well into his 90s. Coaches stopped what they were doing to jog to the sideline and shake his hand. Players used any break to greet him. Equipment staff members would get him a chair, or a hat, or a jacket — or whatever else would make the man who built Broncos football comfortable for his 15- to 20-minute stay.
On his birthday — or on the practice closest to his birthday — players would rush over to Smith, gather around and sing “Happy Birthday.”
In the weight room, they’d marvel at his insistence on toning his arms, chest and stomach.
Through it all, they admired a man whose exploits as a coach came before some of their parents were born — and drew inspiration from his occasional speeches.
“He’s going to live on through all of us,” junior defensive tackle David Moa said.
The fact that Moa — and the other current and former players who expressed their appreciation Wednesday — connected with Smith is a credit to the coaches who made sure he was involved in the program. Smith was assigned a locker in the Bleymaier Football Center.
Repeatedly, Smith told staff members he didn’t want to become a bother. His workout gear was a pair of gray sweatpants and a gray T-shirt — he didn’t need anything else, he told them.
“He didn’t want to be a burden,” said Brandon Pringle, the assistant strength and conditioning coach for football who helped Smith with his workouts and often drove him home. “I’d always have to tell him: ‘No, Coach, we love having you here. The kids love seeing you.’ ”
And Smith enjoyed being included — though he rarely let that show to his hosts.
“Oh my goodness, he loved it,” said Perry Gossett, who played quarterback at Boise Junior College in 1966-67 and had lunch with Smith last week. “It was Boise State football — it’s in his blood. He always looked forward to it.”
Smith was around the Broncos from the time he retired as athletic director in 1981 at age 65. Former coach Chris Petersen, who became the head coach in 2006, started the birthday tradition and current coach Bryan Harsin added to it, presenting Smith with jerseys. The former coach received a No. 101 jersey in March.
“He was just happy to be around,” Petersen said. “He was a coach at heart. He wanted to see how things were being run. He was so humble and appreciative and gracious. You never got that feeling like he expected that he should be around, but you wanted him around. That was the uniqueness of it.”
Harsin held a celebration for Smith’s 100th birthday on the field after practice in March 2016. He invited Smith to speak to the team several times — including one special assignment. Smith delivered a pregame speech before the 2015 game against Washington, led by Petersen.
Both coaches were Smith’s friends. Both had treated him well. But he flashed some of his old coaching “fire,” Harsin said, and made it known to the Broncos where his heart was.
“Our guys always fed from it,” Harsin said. “I pay attention to our team. Not everyone can do this. When Lyle came in, they were on the edge of their seats and they paid attention to what he had to say and there was so much respect.”
Even with his access to the athletic weight rooms, Smith often performed his workouts in the student recreation center on campus. When Harsin returned as head coach in 2014, Smith told him he wanted to stay “tight up here in the chest.”
Harsin laughed, and insisted that Smith do his exercises in the football weight room with supervision from Pringle or fellow strength and conditioning assistant Tyson Gale. The workouts dropped from twice a week in 2014 to once a week in 2015. They stopped a little more than a year ago.
“Every time after he left, I’d say, ‘How’d it go?’ ” Harsin said. “They’d say: ‘Coach, I can’t even tell you. It’s amazing.’ He’d be upstairs riding the bike. The players would see him, and they’d be shaking their heads.”
Smith twice joined the military to work in physical education, so fitness was a central part of his life. One of his favorite self-deprecating jokes in his later years was that the “coeds” lifted more weight than he did at the rec center.
Pringle’s routine with Smith lasted about an hour. They’d start with some light weightlifting, then move to the treadmill or exercise bike for 10 to 15 minutes.
“He would always talk about his belly,” Pringle said. “He wanted to keep his belly flat for sure.”
Pringle heard many stories from Smith, who coached from 1947 to 1967 minus one season spent in the military, and watched him interact with former players. The coach’s recall amazed him.
“He knew everything you could know about Bronco football,” Pringle said. “This year was going to be the 70th Bronco team (since he started coaching). It was crazy how invested he was. He could rattle on about in the 1956 season he recruited a guy from Bend, Ore. He knew his name, where he went after that. ... It wasn’t just a front or something. He really did care about Bronco football and everyone who was ever involved in it.”
Smith posted a 156-25-6 record in 20 seasons as a coach at Boise Junior College, including a national championship. The Broncos moved to four-year status in 1968 and won the Division I-AA national title in 1980 — Smith’s final season as athletic director.
Yet his success wasn’t what people appreciated about Smith the past two decades, Petersen said. They raved about his heart.
“Lyle Smith is to Boise State what (basketball coach) John Wooden was to UCLA,” former Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier said. “Those people are rare. ... You couldn’t recognize him enough.
“Lyle Smith was one of a kind. A legend and a gentleman, and one of the greatest people I’ve ever known.”