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John L.'s quiet summer gives way to season on a hot seat

EAST LANSING, MICH. — John L. Smith prefers to spend his summers chasing adventure. The 58-year-old Michigan State head coach has flown in a fighter jet, run with the bulls in Pamplona and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Matterhorn.

This summer, however, Smith took it easy. With his wife, Diana, recovering from cancer surgery, the Idaho Falls natives prepped for another football season by returning to their Idaho roots, traveling the state extensively. And Smith, the head coach at Idaho from 1989 to 1994, attended a Big Sky coaches' reunion in Utah.

"This year was just one of those years," Smith said, adding that his wife is doing very well.

The lack of summer adventure could be replaced by an eventful fall for Smith, who is among the most embattled coaches in the nation entering his fourth season with the Spartans.

You want real adventure? Try competing against Michigan and Ohio State each year. Who needs to run with the bulls when you're trying to keep pace with the Wolverines and Buckeyes?

Today, Smith will meet mentor and good friend Dennis Erickson, who sought his own adventure this offseason, when Michigan State meets Idaho open the season at Spartan Stadium.

Smith, who has coached Idaho, Utah State and Louisville, is 18-18 in three seasons with the Spartans, including consecutive losing campaigns. Michigan State went 5-6 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten last year.

"Every year is a crucial year, every year. I don't think there's any more pressure than any year, to be honest," Smith said.

Erickson, 59, faces an entirely different challenge in his second stint as Idaho's top Vandal. Fired by the San Francisco 49ers after the 2004 season, Erickson spent last year out of football — and feeling terrible.

That's when an opening fell from the sky — or, at least, the old Big Sky. Idaho, Erickson's first love, needed a head coach. Erickson needed a job, a challenge and an adventure.

"He was miserable. (His wife) Marilyn was miserable. He had to get back on the field," Smith said. "What greater deal than to coach the game for the love of coaching."

There is a certain longing in his voice. You don't get to coach for the love of coaching in the Big Ten. Not at Michigan State. You coach for victories, conference titles and bowl games.

All things Erickson wants his Vandals to experience.

The bonds of their friendship were formed long ago on distant — and in some cases, not so distant — fields. Day after day of competing and living and fighting and learning and loving have bonded Smith and Erickson tightly.

Smith served as a defensive coach for Erickson for seven years at three schools (Idaho, Wyoming and Washington State). It was Erickson's recommendation that opened the door for Smith's first head-coaching job with the Vandals. Smith took over at Idaho in 1989, the same year Erickson headed to Miami and won a national title.

"Me and my cowboy boots don't fit in in Miami," Smith said. "He was the best that I've ever worked for. He has not only been a friend, but a confidant and mentor as well."

The relationship worked well for both. Among active Division I-A coaches, Erickson is 13th in career victories (144) and Smith is tied for 14th (128).

The years apart have not diminished their relationship. Erickson and Smith speak often, comparing notes on football and family.

Erickson is aware of the pressure facing his friend — even as he attempts to add to Smith's woes by beginning his second Idaho tenure with a stunning upset.

"We talk about his program and this program and what we need to do to get this back to where it needs to be. Coaching in the Big Ten is tough," Erickson said. "We don't talk about status in this business from coach to coach."

For good reason. Coaches, at least those not in Erickson's returning hero role, are hired to be fired. That the Spartans return quarterback Drew Stanton — one of the nation's top signal-callers — and a prolific offense only adds to the pressure. Smith cannot afford a season filled with more downs than ups.

And if that means putting the hurt on Idaho and Erickson today, so be it.

"We had to go on the field and practice against him every day, and he never took it easy on me. So why would I take it easy?" Smith said. "No, that's not a concern."

But Smith knows he can't afford a loss today, or even a close game. For a coach who is not afraid to test his limits, that would be going too far.