The Jonathan Smith era at Oregon State is already a month long. We have seen some progress on staff hiring, though not as much as hoped or expected, and we have not only had the first ever December signing period for recruits, but also some time to digest it.
So far, its been a rather underwhelming experience.
Smith was a popular hire, and given his track record at Washington, Boise State, and really, Montana too, there’s reason to believe he might just pull the Beavers out of their current tailspin / head long dive into the ditch, the likes of which have not been seen since the Jerry Pettibone debacle.
But the events of Smith’s first month back in Corvallis haven’t done anything to warrant optimism that the climb will come quickly, or even in sizable steps.
Easily the most notable event was the hiring of twice former head coach Mike Riley as an assistant head coach, though one without an assignment, as Smith and Riley both are taking the approach that Riley will be in part a mentor, and will pick up whatever assignments Smith’s other assistant coach hires don’t cover, assuming those ever get completed.
The hiring came at Riley’s suggestion, as he contemplated offers to join Chip Kelley at UCLA, and a B1G Ten team.
It could prove to be a good move, given that so far, there is no one else in the program that has any head coaching experience, anywhere, at any level, Smith included.
Personally, I like Smith, and I respect him professionally. So do most people, whether they have the favorite son relationship or not. But one of the big reasons to fear he may fail at Oregon State is the lack of head coaching experience, and wide-spread inexperience, especially at higher levels, on his staff only exacerbates the problem.
But the Riley hire has to be concerning, though much of the local media, most of whom adore him, has fought any concerns about him being brought up.
Mike is a nice guy, and he rightly deserves credit for the wins that make him the winningest coach in program history, though in a very far from noteworthy group, Dennis Erickson excluded (though his tenure was brief).
But “recent” reality is not good. And in Riley’s case, recent is over a decade in length, so its not a case of one or two bad years being over-valued in the analysis.
The end of Riely’s last tenure at Oregon State saw year over year downturns in 5 of 6 seasons, the Alamo Bowl year the lone exception. That was the only uptick in the 8 years following the high water mark that was the 10 win 2006 season (there was 1 level year early in that run, where the Beavers had the same record in consecutive seasons).
Riley’s overall .500 record at Nebraska wasn’t much better, and he’s produced only 2 years in the last 11 where the team he coached actually was more productive than it had been the previous season.
That might not be as big a concern if he wasn’t the “star” of the staff, and that brings the analysis to the next big issues that could cause Smith to fail.
When Smith was introduced, Oregon State Athletic Director Scott Barnes made the claim that the University was going to step up, and ensure Smith had whatever he needed to be successful, in terms of staffing.
Reality doesn’t match the press conference hyperbole in this case. While it is true the total funding for assistants will be larger than it was for Gary Andersen and his staff, the difference is nothing but a re-apportioning of the money the university is saving by getting both a rookie and a home-town discount in Smith’s contract, including the absence of a compensation increase plan for Smith.
Shortcomings with Andersen’s staff was one of the significant components of his disastrous tenure, and that was also a big part of the problem with Riley’s later years, so much that Riley made personal financial sacrifices to limit the problem to the extent he was able to.
Oregon State has for a long time been at the bottom of the Pac-12 conference in terms of the investment in coaching, and has gotten results that match. And there’s nothing to suggest there’s any real change coming.
It’s why they wound up with Smith in the first place, instead of attracting a coach with head coach experience. But both Beau Baldwin and Bryan Harsin were waiting out Washington State Coach Mike Leach’s efforts to leverage both a raise and an extension from a depleted university staff, and Oregon State didn’t pony up the dollars to make it worth either Baldwin or Harsin’s while to take the risk of taking on an Oregon State program that’s underfunded and undermanaged in every other way as well.
It’s also why Smith hasn’t been able to find better assistants. There’s no Alex Grinch or Jim Leavitt coordinating the defense. It’s also why there is no top notch recruiter, which in turn will slow the rebuild of the program even if Smith ultimately pulls one off. And increase the chances he won’t be able to.
Most of the hires beyond Riley immediately required a Google search to answer the question “Who?” Even those readily familiar to Beaver fans, Jake Cookus and Trent Bray, are only seen as noteworthy because of their Oregon State roots. In most of the country, these are “Who?” hires too.
And if you redact their names and the schools they were at from their resumes, the results don’t move the needle.
As concerning as the absence of a top rate coordinator is that there is no Jimmy Lake on the staff either. Even the future of Cory Hall, the one dynamic young assistant that seemed to be able to connect with players and recruits remains completely unsettled.
Oregon State can recruit contributors. They always have, and even Andersen and his staff did bring in some good pieces.
Where the Beavers fail miserably is with the difference makers, the players who can swing games and even seasons. There hasn’t been anyone in this mode in Orange and Black since Brandin Cooks and Jordan Poyer.
Ryan Nall comes close, and while its now understood that the Andersen staff’s inability to figure out how to use or support Nall was a problem they never were going to solve, Smith, in a month, hasn’t been able to persuade Nall that he can be the centerpiece of a successful, or even competent, program.
Same with Thomas Tyner. Andersen couldn’t figure out how to use the rare 5 star running back that walked onto the Oregon State campus, but the state of the program is such that Tyner hasn’t been secured either.
Arguably the most mis-managed talent of the Andersen era, and easily the most athletic, was Seth Collins, and Smith couldn’t keep him in the fold either.
A recognized recruiting expert like Lake isn’t going to fix all of the problems Oregon State faces, but one can help, getting some supporting players that make the task at hand at least seem worth considering for the elite players that the Beavers need. And a solid recruiter can buy Smith some time to work on the systemic issues that are going to take anyone time to fix.
Instead, Oregon State’s recruiting class after the first signing window is rated last in the Pac-12.
It’s too soon to make a final assessment, as half the signees, and all of those that will be transfers, will come in the second half.
But already the Beavers lost their primary target at quarterback in Spencer Petras. They got a project in Jake Dukart, and Smith’s offense doesn’t have to have the best physical talent in the conference to succeed. Still, it feels like the eventual upside for Dukart will more closely resemble Tyler Hilinski or Ross Bowers than Jake Browning or Justin Herbert, never mind Luke Falk. Or he may become another player for Pat Casey on the baseball team.
That’s especially an issue for a team with one year of Jake Luton and Connor Blount at QB. And a team that apparently couldn’t attract KJ Karta-Samuels. There’s that 1-2-3 punch of a less than impressive staff, no one to make an effective recruiting pitch, and a program with a lot of reasons to be wary of.
Smith did land 2 defensive linemen in the 11 person early signing class, though they do need at least one more, probably from a JC, in their persisting area of greatest need other than at quarterback. There is also an offensive lineman in the group, another area with serious needs, and there will need to be additional help here as well, also likely by a transfer. It would have been good to get a couple of transfers in time for winter term, though spring term is now soon enough, with Smith’s decision to actually have spring ball in the spring, instead of during winter term, which limited the number of early arrivals, yet another serious tactical error by Andersen.
At least all of the 11 are 3 star recruits, and if Smith and Riley’s reputations for evaluation prove out, there should be some improvement in both the short and long term. Smith needs to make the 2 remaining assistant coach hires and the second half of his recruiting class matter though.
Otherwise, the credibility problem the university has already exacerbated with a push for investment in a program that doesn’t even have a complete staff yet, but does have massive holes in its roster that’s barely Big Sky caliber, and neither an identity or a plan to get one, will only get worse.