DURANGO, Colo. -- John L. Smith, a longtime NCAA Division I head coach with success at six different universities, will become head football coach at Fort Lewis effective March 1, Skyhawk Director of Athletics Gary Hunter announced Wednesday.

Defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato will continue to oversee day-to-day operations until Smith arrives on campus.

Smith has coached at Idaho (1989-94), Utah State (1995-97), Louisville (1998-2002), Michigan State (2003-06), Weber State (during the 2011-12 offseason) and Arkansas (2012). In 19 seasons as a head coach, his teams have compiled a 136-94 record (.591) and advanced to seven bowl games. Smith's teams have won six conference championships, including Big Sky titles at Idaho (1989, 1992), Big West crowns at Utah State (1996, 1997) and Conference USA trophies at Louisville (2000, 2001).

Smith was chosen as the Big Ten Coach of the Year at Michigan State in 2003.

"We are extremely fortunate to have a coach with the tremendous background and experience that John L. brings to Fort Lewis," Hunter said.

Hunter, a second-year FLC athletic director, said the hiring proves the college's commitment to fielding a successful football program, both on and off the field.

"Fort Lewis College is making a commitment to football," Hunter said. "Many of our other programs have reached the pinnacle of success at the national and regional levels. We want our football alumni and fans to have the opportunity to enjoy that same success."

Hunter said that Smith is a proven winner, not just on the gridiron, but in terms of the academic success of his student-athletes.

"Not only has Coach Smith had outstanding success on the field, but he has always stressed the importance of academics and community and campus involvement," Hunter said. "President Dene Kay Thomas was instrumental in assisting us set up an academic advising and support unit at the University of Idaho when she was associate dean there, and developed a close working relationship with [Smith]. That was a key in getting him to Fort Lewis."

"I first looked at Fort Lewis College because of two people: Dene Thomas, who I think the world of and is the best person ever that I could work for, and Gary Hunter, who was my first athletic director at Idaho and is a true friend," Smith said. "I know the two of them are going to do everything possible to make FLC football as good as we can make it."

"I am thrilled!" Thomas said. "{Smith] and I had a good working relationship at UI, cooperating on selection and advising of the student-athletes. I am very excited to have [Smith] here at FLC. He is a great coach and a good friend."

Smith, who has more than 40 years of Division I coaching experience, including assistant coaching stints at Weber State (1971), Montana (1972-76), Nevada (1977-81), Idaho (1982-85), Wyoming (1986), Washington State (1987-88) and Arkansas (2009-11), welcomed the opportunity to get back to his coaching roots at Fort Lewis.

"I'm very excited to actually coach for the real reasons you get into coaching — to make a difference in the kids' lives and help them get an education," Smith said. "At this point in my career, to get back and coach for the real reasons … not to get somebody to the NFL, but to coach kids who want to play the game and get an education. I'm just thankful that they've provided me the opportunity to do this."

Smith sees many challenges in turning around a program that went 0-10 in 2012 and has six consecutive losing seasons. In fact, in 50 years as a four-year college, Fort Lewis has posted 10 winning seasons.

"To me, it's a situation where we're going to have to work hard to try and get the excitement up, get the program going in the right direction, win some games and graduate our kids," Smith said.

Smith replaces Cesar Rivas-Sandoval as head coach of the Skyhawks. Rivas-Sandoval announced his resignation a week ago.

Smith graduated from Weber State in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in physical education. He played quarterback and linebacker for the Wildcats from 1967-70 before joining their staff as a graduate assistant for the 1971 season. He received his master's degree in physical education from Montana in 1974.