When Oregon State Beavers’ head football coach Jonathan Smith took over the program in 2018, the first head coaching job of his career, he was inheriting a team that had finished 1-11 the year before his arrival.
While that 2018 season did not yield much better results in terms of wins and losses, improvement would come around quicker than expected in the following year. After Smith’s second season as the Beavers’ head coach yielded a five win season for the first time since 2014, he had a message for Scott Barnes, the university’s director of athletics. A message displayed front and center on his official page for the Oregon State Athletics website.
“We’re ahead of schedule.”
The improvement from year one to year two of Smith’s head coaching tenure showed itself in ways beyond overall record. The team averaged more yards and points per game on offense, allowed fewer yards and points per game on defense, and even in defeat were able to stay competitive and force most of their losses to lower than a two score margin.
With the team showing improvement across the board two years removed from their one win 2017 season, Barnes trusted in Smith’s declaration, and showed his faith in Smith’s future with the program by extending the coach’s contract through the 2025 season.
Barnes’ move to keep Smith under contract for the long haul was a sign of faith, both in what the second-year coach had done last season, as well as his potential for the future. The athletic department, alongside players old and new, have bought into the kind of coach Smith has been and can continue to be.
But before he began finding success as a head coach, Smith has shown the ability to win at every stop he made along the way. As offensive coordinator for head coach Chris Petersen at the University of Washington, Smith and the Huskies had put together four winning seasons in Smith’s four years with the program, finishing 37-17 with Washington before he took the Oregon State job.
Smith’s winning ways date back even further, however, all the way to his time as a college athlete. In his four years as a player and three as a starter, Smith was overseeing the offense as the Oregon State quarterback long before his time in charge of the entire program.
In his tenure as a player, Smith was a part of one of the most successful seasons in team history in 2000. That year, the Beavers’ quarterback turned coach started for a team that finished 11-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl, the team’s first major bowl win since the 1941 Rose Bowl and their best winning percentage since the football program began.
During the hiring process, Barnes knew how important Smith’s history of winning was, and spoke of the value of winning games as a coordinator and an alum.
“A highly successful coordinator from an elite program who had been mentored by the best,” Barnes said via email. “It is rare to be able to check all of these boxes and have someone who is a beloved former player as well.”
Smith has earned his position with Oregon State through years of finding a way to win, no matter where he was or how he was contributing. Now he will be under contract with the Beavers for six more years with a chance to prove he can do it once again.
He’s earned the trust of the athletic director, and according to Barnes, he’s earned the trust of the players as well.
“They have a tremendous belief and commitment to what they are doing,” Barnes said. “From player to assistant coach, to trainer to equipment manager… Johnathan's authentic leadership has inspired this belief and it is backed by methodically executing their plan for success.”
Barnes’ words about players’ belief in Smith are not empty, and that has shown itself through recruiting. The Beavers’ 2020 recruiting class currently ranks 47th on ESPN’s college football class rankings, putting an Oregon State class in their top 50 for the first time since 2016.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Tristan Gebbia, one of the athletes from a Smith recruiting class, was not originally committed to play for the Beavers. Rather, the former four-star recruit had enrolled to play for the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 2017 before transferring from the program when Smith got the head coaching job.
Now with the program, Gebbia has a Civil War start under his belt and will look to find his way under center once again when the 2020 season kicks off. With Smith, Gebbia believes he and the rest of the Beavers’ roster have a coach that will put them in a shot to win, which is one of the reasons he transferred to Oregon State in the first place.
“I believed in coach Smith,” Gebbia said. “I really believed in what he wanted to accomplish here and I believed in the program he wanted to establish. As time went on it’s just made me more and more of a believer in him and what they’ve got going on.”
Gebbia is one of a few of Smith’s recruits that have already made an impact. Along with the quarterback, redshirt sophomores Avery Roberts and Tyjon Lindsey transferred into the program from Nebraska and have been big parts of a team continuing to grow on both sides of the ball.
Before Smith was winning over players in recruiting, he first had to earn the trust of the players already on the roster prior to his arrival. Among those players is junior defensive back Isaiah Dunn who came to the program in 2017.
Dunn was recruited by former Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen, who also coached the defensive back alongside through the first six games of 2017 alongside interim head coach Cory Hall. Despite being brought in by a different staff, Dunn didn’t doubt that he or is recruiting class wanted to play for Smith after their former head coach was gone.
“Never any doubt,” Dunn said. “It was a little different. We had just lost a coach… but there was never really any doubt, it was just time to put the past behind us and move forward.”
Dunn and the rest of the Beavers roster will now be moving forward with Smith, who is now under contract to be around for a long while. He’s gained the commitment of the athletics department, and according to Dunn and Gebbia, that will only make the team better.
“It’s definitely nice knowing that your coach will be there until you’re gone,” Gebbia said. “We both [Dunn] have gone through coaching staff changes at two different schools and that’s a scary thing sometimes. Honestly, if they gave coach Smith a one year extension I’d be totally confident in what he’s able to do and what we’re able to do as a team.
“I think the confidence that the athletic director shows in our head coach, I think it just speaks volumes,” Dunn said. “I think players on the team, they see that confidence boost that it gives coach Smith and it goes through us as well.”
Barnes will tell stories of Smith “proudly wearing his Fiesta Bowl ring” in his job interview that would paint a picture of a man with no shortage of confidence. But now having received his contract extension, Dunn, Gebbia and the rest of the players are feeling that confidence a little extra.
Heading into next season, the Beavers will hope to channel that confidence into even more success. Smith and the 2019 Beavers won more than any Oregon State team over the last five years. Now, they’ll look to do what Smith has done his whole career, and just keep winning.