Bad losses, negative headlines doom Smith

Michigan State coach John L. Smith climbed the 19,340-foot peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, but couldn't topple Michigan or Ohio State.

Smith ran in front of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, but couldn't stay ahead of Notre Dame -- even when his Spartans led the Fighting Irish by 16 points with less than 22 minutes to play.

Smith skydived from more than 14,000 feet in Greensburg, Ind., of all places, but couldn't keep his team from free-falling against the Hoosiers, a week after Michigan State staged the greatest comeback in NCAA Division I-A history against Northwestern.

Smith, who was fired as Michigan State's football coach on Wednesday, lived an unpredictable life off the field during his four seasons at the helm of the Spartans. His Michigan State teams were just as inconsistent on it.

Smith's teams at Michigan State are 22-23 in three-plus seasons. He will coach the Spartans' last three regular-season games, at home against Purdue on Saturday, followed by a home game against Minnesota and at Penn State in the Nov. 18 finale.

Michigan State is 4-5, 1-4 in Big Ten play, and must win two of its last three games to qualify for a postseason bowl game.

Michigan State had a roller coaster ride under Smith -- the unbelievable high of a 35-point comeback against Northwestern two weeks ago and the forgettable low of a 46-21 loss to Indiana last Saturday.

"There was no real tipping point," Michigan State athletics director Ron Mason said during a news conference today in East Lansing, Mich. "We've had these discussions for quite some time. The performance on the field has not lived up to what we hoped it would be. It comes time to make a change, and that's where we're at."

Smith's tenure with the Spartans began inauspiciously. Smith, 57, coached five seasons at Louisville and became a hot commodity after leading the Cardinals to five consecutive bowl games.

But his players there learned of his pending departure to Michigan State at halftime of Louisville's 38-15 loss to Marshall in the GMAC Bowl on Dec. 18, 2002.

Smith quickly resurrected the Michigan State program in his first season, improving a 4-8 record in 2002 to 8-5 in 2003. But even the 2003 Spartans team -- the only one to post a winning record in Smith's first three seasons at State -- showed alarming signs of inconsistency.

Michigan State lost to Louisiana Tech one week and beat Notre Dame the next. The Spartans won seven of their first eight games and lost four of their last five that season.

In 2004, the Spartans finished 5-7 and lost to Hawaii and Rutgers, before the Scarlet Knights were really any good. The 2005 team finished 5-6, lost six of its last seven games and fell to Northwestern 49-14 on homecoming in East Lansing, Mich.

Smith's last team at Michigan State was perhaps his most maddening. On Sept. 23, the Spartans led Notre Dame 37-21 late in the third quarter. But the Fighting Irish rallied and scored three touchdowns in the final 8:18 to win the game, 40-37.

The following week, the Spartans once again struggled to recover from a deflating defeat, losing to lowly Illinois 23-20 on homecoming at Michigan State. It was the Illini's first victory in Big Ten Conference play since 2004. After the game, players from both teams fought after Illinois players tried to plant an Illini flag at midfield.

"There was no real tipping point. We've had these discussions for quite some time. The performance on the field has not lived up to what we hoped it would be. It comes time to make a change, and that's where we're at."
-- Michigan State athletics director Ron Mason

During the postgame news conference after the Illinois loss, Smith slapped himself in the face, as if to suggest he was hit during the melee. A week earlier, Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis had suggested he was hit during a sideline altercation involving Spartans receiver Matthew Trannon.

Some observers took Smith's actions as a slight toward Weis.

The Illinois loss was just the beginning of Smith's problems. The Spartans lost consecutive games to No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan by combined scores of 69-20. He had a combined record of 0-8 vs. the Buckeyes and Wolverines.

Not that Smith didn't have plenty of chances to beat Michigan. In 2004, the Spartans led the Wolverines 27-10 in the fourth quarter. But Michigan scored 17 points in the final 6:27 of regulation to tie the score and won 45-37 in triple overtime.

Last season, Michigan State never led a struggling Michigan team and lost 34-31 when John Goss missed a 37-yard field goal in overtime.

Smith's struggles against the Wolverines led some Spartans fans to suggest he couldn't finish something as simple as a puzzle.

Off the field, the Spartans' numerous legal problems didn't help Smith's footing with the school's administration. Three football players were charged with misdemeanor assault and battery charges during the last month. Tight ends Kellen Davis and Eric Andino were accused of assaulting two Michigan State students and were suspended. Defensive tackle Bobby Jones was charged in a separate out-of-town incident and was dismissed from the team.

Earlier this season, defensive back Mike Bell was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery for a Sept. 18 incident and was suspended from the team.

In the end, too many bad losses, negative headlines and overwhelming fan discontent were too much for Smith to overcome.

"I think in hiring a coach, you did the right thing if he's successful and didn't if he's not successful," Mason said.

Mason, the former Spartans hockey coach who was named the school's athletics director in July 2002, hired Smith and gave him a guaranteed six-year contract that paid him about $1.35 million annually. Michigan State will pay Smith more than $3 million to buy out the last two years of that contract.

"We're going to honor the contract to its fullest," Mason said Wednesday.

Mason can't hire the wrong coach again. The Spartans have been screaming for consistency since George Perles was fired in 1994. They've had three coaches (four, if you count interim coach Morris Watts) since then, and only Nick Saban, who used the job as a springboard to LSU and then the NFL, enjoyed any kind of success.

"There's going to be more people involved in this search, that's for sure," Mason said. "It's not a science, that's obvious. It's taking opinions and looking for the right fit."

Former Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci, a longtime time friend of Spartans basketball coach Tom Izzo, could be the right fit. He's a nationally recognized name and has college coaching experience. Despite his problems with the Lions, he is still a beloved figure in the state and is recognizable enough to recruit against Michigan.

But if Izzo and Mariucci are indeed close friends -- they grew up together in Iron Mountain, Mich. -- shouldn't Izzo warn Mariucci about getting involved with Michigan State football?

Despite all its resources, Michigan State has played in only one Rose Bowl, won only three Big Ten championships and hasn't won eight games or more in consecutive seasons since 1966.

That's hardly the blueprint for a sleeping giant.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.