Jake Luton sat in the front row of Thursday morning’s team meeting with new Oregon State football coach Jonathan Smith.
The senior-to-be quarterback’s eyes were immediately drawn to Smith’s 2000 Pac-10 championship ring.
“Just to have a guy that’s done it, who’s been in my shoes and had a lot of success here in Corvallis is impressive,” Luton said after Thursday’s introductory press conference at Valley Football Center. Prior to the 11 a.m. presser, Smith met with the team for the first time since his hiring was announced Wednesday evening.
“He just reiterated his passion for this place, this program and the city of Corvallis and just how excited he was to be here. He let us know that we’re not that far way.”
Smith is walking proof that championships are possible at OSU.
A four-year standout quarterback from 1998-2001, Smith went 24-14 overall as a starter for the Beavers. The former walk-on led OSU to a Pac-10 title and a 41-9 thrashing of Notre Dame in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl.
The Beavers have not won a conference title since Smith’s graduation.
“As I spoke to our student-athletes and introduced Jonathan this morning, the one thing I told them was to understand who is before you,” OSU director of athletics Scott Barnes said. “This is a man that won a championship, a conference championship here. He knows how to do it and he knows how to do it the right way.”
Smith, 38, recalled his first interaction with Dennis Erickson after Mike Riley left for the San Diego Chargers in January 1999. Erickson, a two-time national champion coach at Miami, wasn’t afraid to dream big.
“He walks into that first team meeting and he started flashing a national championship ring and says ‘why not here? Why not? We can get this done right here,’” Smith vividly remembered. “And that was an echoed message to these guys.”
Smith has worked with Chris Petersen the past six years, serving as Boise State’s quarterbacks coach (2012-13) and Washington’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach (2014-17).
Under the tutelage of Smith, Jake Browning blossomed into one of the country’s top quarterbacks. Browning, the 2016 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, has thrown for 8,929 yards and a Washington-record 77 touchdowns during his three seasons as a starter.
Browning, a junior, finished sixth in the 2016 Heisman Trophy voting.
“I feel really fortunate to get to work with a guy like him that’s developed a lot of good quarterbacks and was a great quarterback himself,” said Luton, who hopes to be ready for spring ball. Luton is still recovering from a thoracic spine fracture suffered at Washington State on Sept. 16.
“It’s just a special situation for me.”
Luton’s relationship with Smith dates back to his time at Marysville-Pilchuck High in Washington. The pro-style quarterback was lightly recruited by Smith, then at Boise State, before signing with Idaho.
“He was someone that I could tell was just a genuine guy,” Luton said. “He was passionate about football and someone that I could relate to.”
Just like Luton, OSU safety David Morris was recruited by Smith.
Morris, a sophomore-to-be, was a highly sought-after prep prospect from Sherwood High. Smith helped Morris tour the Washington campus.
“So I kind of built a relationship with him early on,” Morris said. “It was cool to reconnect.
“Right away in our meeting (Thursday), he was already cracking jokes with us. It just shows that he’s a good guy and he knows that we’re in a tough situation … but he’s always there. It was reassuring.”
The 2017 campaign was tumultuous for the Beavers, who finished 1-11 overall after Saturday’s 69-10 loss at rival Oregon. Previous coach Gary Andersen and OSU mutually agreed to part ways on Oct. 9, leaving interim coach Cory Hall in charge for the remainder of the season.
Fifty-one days passed between Andersen’s departure and Smith’s hiring. The team was stuck in limbo.
“The trust was kind of broken with coach leaving and stuff,” Morris said. “With the meeting we just had with (Smith), the first thing he brought up was trust and buying in to what he’s bringing to the table.”
Added Smith: “Any time a transition takes place, it’s unsettling, it creates a sense of chaos, it creates a sense of insecurity. … We need to get to know these kids and build some trust because these guys have been recruited by different coaches.”
Morris and Luton both praised Hall’s leadership and would like to see the 40-year-old stick around. The other assistant coaches will not be retained, OSU confirmed Sunday.
Hall was previously the cornerbacks coach.
“I love coach Hall, and I think all the players would reiterate that,” Luton said. “He’s a passionate guy, he’s a fiery guy and he’s one of the first coaches I met from Oregon State when I was playing down at Ventura (Community College). He was someone that I was impressed with from the moment I met him and he stepped up in a big way for this team.”
Smith has already begun the process of assembling a staff. After Christmas break, he plans to meet with the current players individually and sell his vision for what OSU can be.
Despite the 1-11 record, Smith doesn’t believe success is far away.
“Going off of what I see on tape, the thing is close,” Smith said. “You go through something as dramatic as what these kids did, it doesn’t surprise me to have some ups and downs.”