Larry Smith, whose six seasons as USC’s football coach in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought the high of three consecutive Rose Bowl game appearances and the low of perhaps the most humbling defeat in the Trojans’ rich history, died Monday in Tucson after battling leukemia and lymphoma, his family said. He was 68.
Smith, who also coached at Tulane, Arizona and Missouri universities, guided USC to Pacific 10 Conference championships and Rose Bowl berths in each of his first three seasons in Los Angeles. But the Ohio native probably is best remembered by unforgiving fans as the coach who presided over the Trojans’ football fortunes in 1992, when USC lost to upstart Fresno State in the now-defunct Freedom Bowl.
FOR THE RECORD:
Smith obituary: The obituary of former USC football coach Larry Smith in Tuesday’s California section stated that his son Corby was a former USC and Missouri quarterback. He was a quarterback at USC and Iowa and a coach at Missouri. —
Smith, seemingly repudiating the Trojans’ storied football heritage, further inflamed longtime USC followers when he said: “Names and logos don’t mean anything. You don’t beat someone just because of your name and logo.”
Within days of the Fresno State loss, Smith was fired with three years left on his contract.
He later resurfaced at Missouri, where his career ended when he was fired in November 2000 after a 3-8 season. In Smith’s 24 seasons as a major college coach, his teams were 143-126-7, including a 44-25-3 record at USC.
USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett, an associate athletic director during Smith’s last two seasons at USC, said in a statement: “On behalf of the entire Trojan family, I’m saddened to hear of the passing of Larry Smith. He was a good man and a good football coach.
“When he came to USC, he brought a tough-minded approach and solid fundamentals and he produced some very successful teams here. Getting his first three teams into the Rose Bowl is unprecedented in our history. We’ll remember Larry dearly and will long appreciate his contributions to Trojan football.”
Smith never backed down from his “names and logos” sentiment in later years, arguing that tradition takes teams only so far. But he acknowledged the frustration of the Fresno State defeat in an interview with The Times in August 2006.
“Our guys didn’t give a damn about being there,” he said of the game that was played in Anaheim.
Born Sept. 12, 1939, Smith was a native of Van Wert, Ohio. He was a two-way end at Bowling Green University, where he played as a sophomore on a small-college national championship team in 1959, and was an assistant to Bo Schembechler, head coach at Miami of Ohio and Michigan.
A defense-oriented, no-nonsense coach, Smith pumped life into programs at Tulane and Arizona before being hired by USC, which had reached the Rose Bowl once in four seasons under Ted Tollner before Smith’s arrival in 1987.
“When he got hired at USC, Larry Smith was exactly what we needed,” former Trojans receiver John Jackson said in a statement released by the school. “He was perfect for USC at that time in our history.”
A self-proclaimed “small-town guy,” Smith was USC’s first coach without previous Trojan ties since Howard Jones in 1925, a designation that didn’t sit well at first with dismissive alumni.
In his first three seasons, however, the Trojans were 27-8-1 and won a then-school-record 19 consecutive Pac-10 games. In 1988, they won their first 10 games and were ranked No. 2 before losing to top-ranked Notre Dame.
Among those who played for Smith at USC was linebacker Junior Seau, who this season helped the New England Patriots to a 16-0 regular season and a berth in the National Football League’s Super Bowl on Sunday. Others included 1988 Heisman Trophy runner-up Rodney Peete and All-Americans Tony Boselli and Mark Carrier.
In Smith’s last three seasons, USC was 17-17-2.
When he was fired, he said: “It’s not what you did three or four years ago. It’s ‘What have you done lately?’ As a coach or an athlete or as a team, you’re only as good as your last game, and that’s the way most fans remember” you.
At Missouri, Smith twice took the previously moribund Tigers to bowl games.
In recent years, he voted in the Harris Poll, part of the Bowl Championship Series equation that determines college football’s national champion, and worked as a color commentator for Fox telecasts of Arizona football games.
“His love for college football was as big as the emotion that he wore on his sleeve,” Arizona Athletic Director Jim Livengood said of Smith in a statement on the school’s website.
Smith is survived by his wife, Cheryl; son Corby, a former USC and Missouri quarterback; daughter Alicia; and several grandchildren.