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TUCSON, Ariz. - Larry Smith, who helped Bowling Green State University win a small-college national football championship in 1959 and went on to a long coaching career, died yesterday after a long bout with chronic lymphatic leukemia. He was 68.
The emotional coach who led Southern California to the Rose Bowl three times and won 143 games with Tulane (1976-79), Arizona (1980-86), USC (1987-92) and Missouri (1994-2000), died in a Tucson hospital, the University of Arizona confirmed.
Smith graduated from Van Wert High School. He played defensive end for BGSU under coach Doyt Perry from 1959-61 during which time the Falcons lost just three games. The '59 team went 9-0 and outscored their opponents 274-83.
Smith was the team captain as a senior when BGSU played in its first bowl game, the Mercy Bowl against Fresno State.
He graduated in 1962 with a math degree and later went back for a master's degree in administrative education. He was inducted into the BGSU athletic hall of fame in 1991.
Smith was head football coach at Lima Shawnee High School from 1964-66.
He was then an assistant coach at Miami (Ohio), Michigan and Arizona before beginning his 24-year head coaching career at Tulane. Smith was 143-126-7 overall at four schools and his teams were 3-6-1 in bowl games.
"It's a sad day for Wildcats past, present and future," Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood said. "Larry was part of a great tradition at UA and helped so many young student-athletes be successful playing football and later in life. His love for college football was as big as the emotion that he wore on his sleeve."
Smith coached USC for six years, finishing 44-25-3, before he was fired on New Year's Day of 1993, his departure hastened by a 24-7 loss in the Freedom Bowl to unranked Fresno State.
Smith started his tenure at USC in 1987 and took the Trojans to the Rose Bowl in each of his first three seasons. The Trojans lost their first two Rose Bowls under Smith, before beating Michigan and his mentor, Bo Schembechler, in Schembechler's final game as Wolverines' coach after the 1989 season.
Smith worked under Schembechler for six years at Miami (Ohio) and Michigan.
Smith played football at BGSU after transferring from West Point.
"He was a remarkable football coach. He was one of these guys that just made up his mind something was going to get done, and it did," said Corky Simpson, retired sports columnist for the Tucson Citizen.
"It's really a blow. But Larry's out of pain now and I'm happy for that; we all are."
Smith returned to Arizona in 1980 as its head coach, just as the Wildcats began serving a lengthy NCAA probation for infractions incurred under predecessor Tony Mason.
Smith righted the program during his seven years in Tucson, ending the 1986 season with a 9-3 record and his fifth straight win over rival Arizona State, before leaving suddenly to take over at USC.
Smith finished 48-28-3 at Arizona.
Lamonte Hunley, who followed his older brother Ricky to Arizona to play for Smith.
"I was given an opportunity simply because Coach Smith believed in me as a football player and as a young man whom he thought he could bring to Tucson and instill some positive things in," Hunley said. "He did that."
Hunley said when Smith went into a home to recruit a player, "he listened to the parents first and foremost, then told them what his goals were and what he was going to do for their child.
"He was going to get him out here and get him an education and turn him into a productive young man, and he did that," Hunley said. "He wasn't just a coach to us, he was a father figure to us, a mentor, a father figure that we all looked up to."
Many Arizona fans were irate when Smith left after the 1986 season to move to Los Angeles and take over a Southern California program that had slipped. Hunley said others understood.
"[He] did what he had to do, he had to make that move to progress himself as a coach," Hunley said.
Smith and his wife, Cheryl, kept their home in Tucson, where they spent their offseasons, then moved back full-time when he retired after being fired at Missouri. Their two children and several grandchildren live in Tucson or the Phoenix area.
"The community that knew Coach Smith for what he was about still opened their arms to him and respected him as being a productive coach and a productive man in Tucson," Hunley said.
Smith remained active in recent years, including working with the College Football Hall of Fame and spearheading efforts to change coaching at the Pop Warner level to make sure youngsters get the proper football fundamentals.
Above all, Hunley said, Smith's No. 1 goal for his players was to have fun.
Simpson recalled that after Smith's first two Arizona teams lost to ASU, the first time 44-7 and then 24-13, he made a vow. "He said, 'They're not going to beat us again."
And the Sun Devils never did. Smith beat them five straight times.