John L Smith’s era was punctuated by flubs and failures. However, when he led the Spartans to a victory for the ages over Notre Dame in 2005, it appeared as though he was on his way to winning the hearts and minds of us all….
When John L Smith slapped himself in the face in his post game press conference after a depressingly awful 2006 home loss to Big Ten doormat Illinois, it was pretty clear that whatever modest momentum John L had created at one point during his time as Michigan State’s head coach was dust in the wind.
It’s worth noting that John L never really got the credit he deserved for the reason why he actually slapped himself during that post game press conference.
After the previous week’s loss to Notre Dame, Irish head coach Charlie Weis, in one of his more memorable moments of strange bravado, claimed that a Spartan player had slapped him on the sideline during a fracas.
Weis, of course, had never been slapped by anyone or anything perhaps other than the turkey gizzard hanging from his jowls.
But I digress,
The John L Smith Era will likely be remembered for moments of flubbery.
With hopes still high, despite another tragic overtime home loss to UMAA the previous week, there was this Special Teams blunder at Ohio State in 2005 with the first half coming to a close and Michigan State on the verge of extending its impressive 17-7 lead –
John L was not happy with the way that first half concluded.
John L was about as colorful of a head coach as has roamed the sidelines for the Spartans.
That colorful charisma never became Duffy-esque charm since John L’s program couldn’t ever seem to get out of its own way.
But, there were bright spots.
There was even a high point.
That high point remains truly memorable for all Spartans in the way John L’s Spartans managed to gut out a never-to-be-forgotten win over Notre Dame in one of the all-time classic matchups between the longtime rivals that took place on a glorious early Autumn day under the watchful eye of Touchdown Jesus himself.
Charlie Weis was in his first season as the leader of the Irish who was slated to have a decided schematic advantage over all opponents and the battle that day was Weis’s first game to take place under the Golden Dome.
NBC’s Tom Hammond opened up the NOTRE DAME SATURDAY broadcast with a dramatic, “It’s the first home game of The Charlie Weis Era – is it a game that affirms an Irish return to glory?”
John L Smith led his 2-0 Spartans into South Bend that day and Green & Whiters everywhere felt like this was the day when the program finally was ready to turn what had been an extremely elusive corner.
As State took the field that afternoon, Hammond had this narration: “And here are the opponents – the ALSO 2-0 Spartans of Michigan State who have OWNED Notre Dame in recent years in this stadium…”
Hammond was right.
Michigan State had won four straight games in South Bend and had the goods to feel confident about making it five straight.
Drew Stanton led a juggernaut of an offense that was poised to treat opponents like scout team squads all season.
Part-time Spartan hoopster Matt Trannon hauled in two scintillating touchdowns while wowing the crowd as a fierce 6’6″ weapon.
Tight end Kellen Davis was a monster as an option for Stanton, too.
Wideout Terry Love terrorized the Irish all afternoon.
SirDarean Adams performed admirable thievery as a rover back by swiping a Brady Quinn toss and taking it back to the house just as the second half started.
Michigan State’s Chris Smelend-led defense even managed to thwart Notre Dame from the 1-yard line when Kaleb Thornhill picked up an Irish fumble and stop Notre Dame on a 4th and short in the waning moments of regulation.
Midway through the 3rd quarter, Michigan State owned a 38-17 lead and it looked like the Spartans were readying themselves for Pasadena or beyond.
But, Charlie Weis loaded up on some chocolate pudding and the Irish fought back, eventually forcing overtime as the sun went down.
Check out John L at his best at the 4:12 mark – he shimmies up to his man, Stanton, puts his arm around the kid, gives him a wink and smile and says, “Let’s get this thing done.”
Finally, after 1082 yards of total offense between the two teams (488 for Michigan State, 594 for Notre Dame) on a sensational day of college football pomp and circumstance, Jason Teague took Stanton’s perfectly-executed option toss 19 yards on a stiff-arming scamper and reached pay dirt to claim the win for the Green & White.
A win for the ages, indeed.
Sure, the Spartans got a little carried away with the whole planting of the flag “thing” in the immediate post game emotional reactions. But that was all blown way out of proportion – the players had just won a game that was about as thrilling of a football game as Prom Night is for a lot of fellas.
So they planted a flag?
The only real issue with the flag planting was, as John L himself pointed out with his typical wit and wink, they missed the 50-yard line by a mile and planted it somewhere around the 27…
John L Smith was a bit of a black square in a green round hole from the moment he set foot in East Lansing.
It was probably a nice idea and might have worked if a few things had gone differently (like, maybe if the team had won a few more football games).
But no matter what anyone thinks of The John L Era, nobody can ever dispute that his Spartans treated us all to one of the most exciting wins in Michigan State history.
Wherever you are these days, John L – thanks for giving us this one….