Larry Smith’s McKale Center office was windowless and confining, about as big as a guest room at the Motel 6. But Smith had a gift for interior design.
Next to the front door, impossible to miss, was a bold, 2-foot-by-2-foot script of Smith’s goals for Arizona football. In order it said:
Earn a degree.
Win the Rose Bowl.
During the football season, Smith held Sunday afternoon press conferences in his office. Seating capacity: five. Three would sit on a couch, two others in modest chairs adjacent to the coach’s desk. Late-comers stood, but were careful not to jostle the four most cherished objects on the wall.
A game ball from a 1980 victory over No. 2 UCLA.
A game ball from a 1981 victory over No. 1 USC.
A game ball from a 1982 victory over undefeated Notre Dame.
And, the most prized football of his collection, a stunning, knock-ASU-out-of-the-Rose Bowl upset in 1982.
By the time Smith completed his Arizona career by going 9-3 and winning the 1986 Aloha Bowl, the display of game balls had grown to include treasured victories over the Sun Devils in 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1986.
Smith, No. 19 on our list of Tucson’s Top 100 Sports Figures of the last 100 years, might have remained at Arizona until retirement. But the Arizona Board of Regents did not approve multi-year contracts until 1986 — or, in effect, until July 1, 1987.
On Dec. 11, 1986, USC athletic director Mike McGee contacted Smith and asked him if he was interested in coaching the Trojans. Ordinarily, that would trigger an immediate “when do I start?’’ reply, but Smith, who grew up in a working class family in Van Wert, Ohio, was torn.
Not only had he helped Jim Young build Arizona to relevance as the school’s defensive coordinator from 1973 to 1975, posting consecutive 8-3, 9-2 and 9-2 seasons, Smith worked through a two-year NCAA probation in the early '80s and chopped down ASU’s long domination of the Territorial Cup.
He longed to break through and coach the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl, the one goal he had not fulfilled.
Smith visited Arizona athletic director Cedric Dempey at his Foothills home and told him about his conversation with USC.
“Larry was emotional, he broke down,” Dempsey told me. “He wasn’t sure what to do. He seriously considered turning USC down.”
Ultimately, Smith accepted a significant pay raise and multi-year contract at USC. The Los Angeles Times reported that USC’s McGee would not have contacted Smith if he had been working on a multi-year deal at Arizona; McGee had a waiting list that included Iowa’s Hayden Fry and Baylor’s Grant Teaff.
On the Pac-10 Skywriters Tour in 1987, Smith sat in the Tournament of Roses House one night and told me his desire to stay at Arizona was genuine.
“The other factor involved was that my assistants could get paid more at USC,” he said. “I had so many top assistants leave Arizona to get more competitive salaries. This wasn’t all about me.”
Indeed, as Smith built Arizona into a Rose Bowl contender, future head coaches Moe Ankney, Chuck Amato and Steve Axman, and future NFL assistants Willie Peete, Keith Rowen, Bobby April, Bob Palcic, Mike Barry and Clarence Shelmon all left for more money and opportunity.
Smith surrounded himself with elite coaches, and it showed in the development of those like Chuck Cecil, David Wood, Lamonte Hunley, Randy Robbins, Jeff Kiewel, Allan Durden, Byron Evans and David Adams, all under-the-radar recruits who became first-team All-Pac-10 players.
Arizona hired Smith away from Tulane in April of 1980 after coach Tony Mason was dismissed in the wake of an NCAA investigation that discovered UA coaches and boosters had been paying players illegally in the late 1970s. Smith had coached Tulane from the bottom up, going 2-9, 3-8, 4-7 and 9-3.
At his welcome-to-Tucson press conference, the emotional Smith twice broke down, wept, and paused to compose himself. He promised integrity and hard work, and that’s what he delivered. His starting salary was $54,000.
Talk about being underpaid. Smith changed the image and reputation of Arizona football, winning with defense and the kicking game as taught by his mentor, Bo Schembechler, who hired Smith to be a line coach at Miami of Ohio in 1967, and then at Michigan in 1969.
At an event for Smith held at the DoubleTree Hotel in the spring of '86, Schembechler, UCLA coach Terry Donahue, Seattle Seahawks coach Chuck Knox and Illinois coach John Mackovic “roasted” the coach but also spoke of his remarkable career, which began as an all-conference end at Bowling Green.
Smith initially accepted a congressional appointment to West Point and played one year for Army before transferring to Bowling Green near his Ohio hometown.
“My dad wanted me to be an engineer, so I got my degree in mathematics,” said Smith. “About the only thing I can use that diploma for now is to realize we still need one more win to go to the Rose Bowl.”
A year later, as USC’s coach, Smith finally got to the Rose Bowl, the first of three.
After coaching seven years (1994-2000) at Missouri, Smith and his wife, Cheryl, returned to Tucson and bought at home at the Skyline Country Club. Smith died of leukemia in 2008. He was 69.
Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @ghansen711