How Oregon State football has reshaped its present and future under Jonathan Smith

Published: Nov. 22, 2022

By Chris Vannini | The Athletic

CORVALLIS, Ore. — It’s November in Oregon, so cold rain is about to become a common sight around here. It snowed the night before. But through the rain and the fog on a recent morning, an image of the towering concrete emerged. An image of the future.

Oregon State imploded the southwest side of Reser Stadium in January. The video was spectacular. The noise was louder than the neighborhood expected. A new grandstand is under construction, set to finish the modernization of the 70-year-old structure in time for next season.

Across from the stadium, athletic director Scott Barnes has a special chair in his office. It’s called a living room box seat, but it feels like sitting in a premium movie theater. It’s the kind of seating one can find in an NFL stadium. Sitting in a living room box at an Oregon State game in the future will cost north of $130,000 per box. Despite the price, nearly every luxury seat, all 400-plus across four levels, is already sold out, spanning from $11,000 per seat up to around $75,000. Barnes says it’ll be the closest luxury seating to the field in all of the Power 5. The structure will also include a student medical center and a student welcome center. That concrete under construction across the street is the future.

In the present, Reser Stadium is two-thirds of a stadium, with a capacity of about 26,000. That has its benefits and drawbacks. The downside is the empty side of the stadium with all that concrete. The upside is that every game has been sold out. Part of that is scarcity. Part of that is the Beavers themselves, in the midst of the program’s best season in a decade.

“The environment is one that people around the conference and beyond are seeing and talking about,” said Barnes, whose Rose Bowl socks stuck out above his feet. “That’s exciting.”

That smaller but intimate environment will hit a fever pitch this Saturday for the rivalry game against Oregon. It’s the fifth time both teams enter this game ranked in the AP poll. The Ducks are no longer in the College Football Playoff race, but the Pac-12 championship and the Rose Bowl are still in play. For the Beavers, it’s an opportunity to wreck their rivals’ hopes. More than that, it’s another opportunity to show the country that Oregon State is on the upswing.

For two decades, Oregon has built a brand around the Nike money, the plethora of uniforms, the space-age facilities and the wins. Oregon State is the classic college football in-state rival, just 45 minutes away up Interstate 5, with an underdog mentality. Corvallis has its breweries and nice spots, not populated with many tourists like Eugene. You earn what you make here, and these Beavers have had to earn it.

It’s an era of quick fixes in college football. The majority of Pac-12 schools start a transfer quarterback, including the Ducks and Bo Nix, a former five-star recruit. The Beavers have used multiple QBs this season due to injuries, seven players have thrown a pass and there is a special package for senior quarterback/running back/linebacker Jack Colletto, who plays both ways. It exemplifies the team, and a roster doing whatever is needed. This program was built slowly and steadily over the past five years. Now it’s a Top 25 team. And now it’s beginning to really jump into the NIL game, with outside party Dam Nation becoming the preferred collective of Oregon State athletics earlier this month.

“The type of guys you can get here are all about football, school and being good dudes,” head coach Jonathan Smith said. “You can win with that.”

Along with those socks, Barnes has a Rose Bowl pin in his wallet and a replica of a 1941 Rose Bowl jacket framed in his office. The Beavers haven’t played in the Rose Bowl since 1965, but the goals are the goals.

Smith is more understated. On this day, he wore a normal dark gray sweater. No special team-issued Nike gear or athletic apparel. He doesn’t talk like a typical football coach. As in, he talks like a normal person, asking questions and avoiding most coachspeak.

“He reads a ton and he’s got interests outside of football,” said offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren, on staff since 2018.

But Smith can get a point across when he wants. Like the time he wore his 2001 Fiesta Bowl ring to the job interview with Barnes in late 2017.

“Just a subtle reminder that I’d been at the place, I knew the place,” Smith said. “I don’t wear it very often, but I wore it then.”

Smith knows what’s possible here better than anyone. He arrived as a walk-on in 1997, joining a program that reached an FBS-record 28 consecutive losing seasons. He left with that Fiesta Bowl ring and a slew of school records after throwing to receivers like Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. He didn’t plan on having such an accomplished career. Growing up in southern California, he wanted to be a coach. He didn’t have any coaches in the family, he just fell in love with the X’s and O’s.

His grandmother lived in Corvallis at the time, and he felt he could prepare best for a coaching career under Mike Riley, so he walked on at Oregon State. He started a few games as a redshirt freshman, then Riley left for the San Diego Chargers and in came Dennis Erickson, returning to college from the NFL less than a decade removed from winning national championships at Miami (Fla.).

When Erickson walked in, he thought Smith was a team manager.

“I’m 5-10, 175 pounds,” Smith said. “I didn’t look like a typical quarterback.”

Erickson told a wide-eyed Smith and the rest of the Beavers in his first team meeting that they were Rose Bowl material, despite those 28 losing seasons. Two years later, they went 11-1. Smith wasn’t quite that bold upon taking over as coach in 2018 after four years as Washington’s offensive coordinator, but the vision was the same.

“I did feel confident — maybe not as much as coach Erickson because he’d done it at multiple places — but I was confident it was going to take a little time,” Smith said.

Smith took over a team in shambles and paused when describing what he inherited. Riley went to eight bowl games in 12 years in his second stint from 2003 to ’14, but the next head coach, Gary Andersen, resigned six games into the 2018 season with a 1-5 record and 7-23 tenure. He’d left Wisconsin for Corvallis, and then he quit less than three years into it. Barnes, who worked with Andersen at Utah State, called it one of the hardest things he’d encountered in his career. But Barnes maintained that the school would keep investing in football. That was the pitch to candidates. In Smith, he saw someone who knew what it took to win here.

When Smith arrived, he noticed a small team, literally. It needed more size and length at basically every position. But anyone can find size in recruiting. That’s not an edge, especially for a team that is typically near the bottom of the Pac-12 in the recruiting rankings. Coaches needed to find players who could be developed. Lindgren said they emphasized finding multi-sport athletes.

“We took some guys that are 6-5, 215 pounds and now they’re at 255,” Smith said. “That takes time.”

Oregon State went 2-10 in Smith’s first season. The Beavers improved to 5-7 in 2019 and were a last-second loss to Washington State away from a bowl appearance. They slipped to a 2-5 record in the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, though it featured a 41-38 win against the Ducks. Still, not many Power 5 coaches would get more time with a 9-22 record in three years.

“Jonathan said there was patience here, the administration had a vision for this thing,” Lindgren said.

Barnes gave Smith a long leash when he hired him. That allowed Smith to build. He was patient with players and he didn’t fire an assistant through three years.

“Let’s just say what we were, we were one of the worst programs in the Power 5,” Barnes said. 

“So I was not concerned with the wins over the first few years. I was concerned with the culture changing, the foundation being set, bringing the right staff. He has methodically built this thing.”

The breakthrough arrived last season. The Beavers won at USC for the first time since 1960, ending a 24-game losing streak there, and started 5-2. It was Oregon State’s first winning season in seven years and first winning record in conference play in eight.

But the Beavers lost four of their last six, including games to Cal, Colorado and Utah State in the LA Bowl. Defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar was fired after the loss to Colorado, the first coaching change Smith had made. The stretch was a lesson for everyone.

“I don’t want to say maturity, but a mindset that each week, no matter who you’re playing, you have to play well,” Smith said.

Still, 2021 showed progress, and it continued into the 2022 season. The Beavers beat Boise State and Fresno State to open the year. They lost 17-14 to a USC team now contending for the College Football Playoff. Importantly, they beat the teams they should beat, like Stanford, Colorado, Cal and Arizona State, none of which will play in a bowl game. They broke into the AP poll for the first time since 2013. They enter the Oregon game at 8-3 with two three-point losses. It’s the second eight-win season for the program since 2010.

With that success comes attention. Now, other schools will want to hire Smith’s assistants. And in the transfer portal and NIL era, they’ll want some Oregon State players, too. It’s the nature of the sport now. True freshman running back Damien Martinez has shined with 867 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. He’s from Texas. Oregon State coaches won’t say it publicly, but in the world of tampering, every school is worried about losing a rising star player. It’s the new reality.

Oregon State has also seen the other side. Last year, the Beavers were in the mix to land Georgia transfer quarterback JT Daniels. Daniels chose West Virginia instead. Local writer John Canzano reported that Daniels received a sizable NIL package from the people around West Virginia’s collective.

That’s why the aptly named Dam Nation has come around at the perfect time. Founded by former Oregon State associate athletic director Kyle Bjornstad and former Nike executive Dick Oldfield, the organization partnered with Learfield marketing to become Oregon State’s preferred NIL collective. Bjornstad wasn’t familiar with the specifics of the Daniels situation, but everyone knows the role NIL plays in changes and decisions.

“That doesn’t necessarily play into what we’re doing, but it does outline the importance that we need to be in this game,” he said. “We’re going to be and we’re going to be aggressive.”

Along with connecting athletes to businesses, Dam Nation has former Beaver greats like Steven Jackson as ambassadors to connect and consult with active Oregon State players across multiple sports.

The NIL business has been a mad dash in the 17 months since it went into effect. Some collectives have folded or merged into others. NCAA rules have changed and different state laws allow different things. The NCAA now allows schools to encourage fans to donate to the third-party collective so they can pay athletes. Oregon, USC, Arizona State and Washington State have notable collectives in the Pac-12. Now Oregon State is pushing into the space at a key time.

“We wanted to put together a program that is going to catapult Oregon State forward,” Bjornstad said. “Many would say we’re late to the party, but we would argue we didn’t rush and we put together something that will be long-lasting and very beneficial.”

Oregon State has prepared for the future, but this week is all about the Oregon matchup and the game that technically isn’t called the Civil War anymore but is still called the Civil War by everyone in this state.

This is the week when everyone reminds special teams coordinator Jake Cookus about the game of his life. He’s still a legend in the state for his three interceptions of Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington in 2000, the biggest game in the rivalry’s history, with a BCS bid on the line. Josh Line, a high school coach in Eugene, was on that Oregon team, and whenever Cookus comes by to recruit, Line reminds him that Cookus ruined his year.

“I tell the players, ‘I know the film is black and white and it’s not HD, but I did make a couple plays back then,’” Cookus joked.

An Oregon native, Cookus walked on to the team in 1998. In 2016, he passed on full-time jobs to join Oregon State as a quality control assistant to be close to his parents before his father died. When Smith became head coach, he not only kept his former teammate on staff, but he promoted him. Nobody knows better what Oregon State can accomplish in this rivalry.

“It’s the right to live in Oregon and have the bragging rights,” Cookus said. “You’re either a Beaver or a Duck here. It’s even more fun when both teams have something to play for, and that’s this year.”

The specter of conference realignment also continues to hang over the sport. USC and UCLA are on their way to the Big Ten, and the LA-native Smith hates to see it. The Big 12 has been public about its desire to add some Pac-12 schools. What is the future of the Pac-12? And around these parts, what is the future of the Civil War game? The annual Bedlam rivalry game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will soon end. Nothing is completely safe.

Barnes expressed confidence in the future of the Pac-12, which should finish its media rights deal by the end of the year, and he has no doubt the future of this game is secure.

“One, I believe we’ll be in the same conference moving forward for a long time,” he said. “Secondly, it’s such a convenient rivalry, 45 minutes away. The history is too rich and strong to not play this game. It’s not even a question.”

Oregon State is prepared for whatever that future holds. The stadium renovation will continue through the winter and spring, and those luxury boxes that cost more than $100,000 will be filled next season. Recruiting has improved. The Beavers had the No. 6 class in the Pac-12 in 2022, their best mark since 2004. The new NIL collective will try to keep that momentum going.

More than anything, Oregon State has a head coach who has seen the mountaintop and knows it’s possible here. He’ll always have the ring to prove it.

“We’re not going away,” Smith said.