Despite interim tag, John L. Smith out to prove he's not just stop-gap
Arkansas signed John L. Smith to 10-month interim deal to replace Bobby Petrino
Smith, who served as an Arkansas assistant from 2009-11, should bring stability
He's inheriting a team that was expected to compete for 2012 SEC and BCS titles
DESTIN, Fla. -- When he ran with the bulls in Pamplona, John L. Smith had a playbook. "When the first cannon goes off, they let them out," Smith said at the SEC spring meetings. "Get to Hamburger Corner and then wait for them."
Wait? For several tons of angry future New York strip steaks with horns?
"Just wait," Smith said. "Let 'em come to you. Then run up the hill with them into the stadium. Then you're home free." Like most daring plans, Smith's could have backfired. "Some will turn the corner," Smith said. "Some will make a hasty, abrupt stop into the corner."
Those hasty, abrupt stops can get nasty.
Ask Bobby Petrino, the man Smith replaced. Smith, 63, is back in Fayetteville because of the abrupt end of Petrino's motorcycle joyride on April 1. The bike wreck touched off an investigation during which Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long learned Petrino had hired his mistress, lied to Long and exposed the school to tremendous legal liability. That forced Long to do the unthinkable. He had to fire the coach who had brought the Razorbacks to the brink of elite status.
The timing couldn't have been worse. Arkansas has one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Tyler Wilson. If tailback Knile Davis is recovered from the ankle injury that cost him the 2011 season, the Hogs' offense should be the best in the SEC. Alabama and LSU -- the two teams that played for the national title last season and the only two teams to beat Arkansas last season -- both have to come to Fayetteville. The Razorbacks were as well positioned as a team can be in the meat grinder of the SEC West. Then Petrino hopped on his motorcycle.
Long had several options when he replaced Petrino. Long could have elevated a current staff member, but none seemed ready. Long could have hired an interim coach, but would that coach's temporary status keep him from earning the respect of players and recruits? Long could have hired a permanent replacement, but in April, the kind of coaches who deserved a job like Arkansas weren't going to leave their current jobs.
In hiring Smith from Weber State, Long chose a hybrid of options one and two. Smith coached special teams and outside linebackers at Arkansas from 2009-11. He had been gone from Fayetteville for three months. The players knew him, liked him and respected him, so that eased one major fear. Still, Smith only received a 10-month contract. How can he prove he isn't just a stop-gap?
Simple, Smith said. Though his contract is measured in months instead of years, his job status isn't that different than most of his peers. He merely has a lower buyout. "If they want you out, they're going to kick you out the door," Smith said. "If you don't win enough games, you're going to be gone. We're no different than anybody else."
Smith took heat for leaving Weber State in a lurch, but given a similar situation in their own professional lives, most people would have made the same move. "You have to take that shot," Smith said. For Smith, a guy who also has climbed a peak of Mount Kilimanjaro and jumped out of a perfectly good airplane from 14,000 feet, every diem is something to be carpe'd. He couldn't turn down the chance to either succeed brilliantly or fail spectacularly. "How often do you get opportunities in life?" Smith said. "If you get an opportunity to go run with the bulls, you do it. If you get an opportunity to coach the University of Arkansas, you're going to go do it."
Can Smith succeed? That depends on the ever-shifting definition of success. At Arkansas in 2012, success means at least a BCS bowl berth and probably an SEC title. An SEC title, at least the past six years, also means a berth in the national title game. So Smith, who in his last stint as a head coach went 22-26 in four seasons at Michigan State, faces a climb as steep as the one he made in Tanzania. Still, Smith can't dwell on his last experience as a head coach. "You tear off that mirror," he said, "and you look ahead."
The thorniest question is how much will the Hogs miss Petrino's playcalling? Some men are born with the ability to see several steps ahead of opposing defensive coordinators. Petrino was one of them. Bobby's brother, Paul, the current Arkansas offensive coordinator, shares most of the same genetic code, but did he inherit the knowing-exactly-when-to-run-four-verticals gene? With apologies to Smith's epic halftime rant during the 2005 Ohio State game, Razorbacks players should play their tails off, but the concern in Arkansas is that the coaches will screw it up.
Smith understands that, and he has worked to assure the fan base that there should be little change from Bobby Petrino's administration. Hopefully, that also means there will be little drop-off. "Coach Petrino and that staff and the players did a tremendous job for four years," Smith said. "What those players didn't want to see was it becoming unstable. Bringing me back kept that stability that was there. That's the key. It's not that we brought anything in. We just were able to maintain and keep what was there."
Smith also has thrown himself into recruiting despite his tenuous status. He offered an answer during an interview that he probably has given during several dozen phone calls and unofficial visits since taking the job. "You are going to commit to a program," Smith said. "That's what this is -- a program. It's not a one-person deal. It's not I, me, my. It's us, we, our. It's a program. It's a university. It's a community. It's a state. It's all of the above. ... We're trying to get as many of the Arkansas kids in the boat as we can and let them be the face of the recruiting class."
Smith is coaching and recruiting as if he'll be in Fayetteville past 2012. He has no other choice. "Our belief is that it's going to be more than one year," Smith said. "That's the way we have to make it. That's the way our coaches have to make it. That's the way our football team and this program has to make it."
The Razorbacks have a chance to do something special this fall. They'll have to wait for those bulls from Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge to come to them, but if they can avoid more hasty, abrupt stops, they could be home free provided their interim coach performs as he did in Pamplona and not as he did in East Lansing. "I like running with those Hogs," Smith said with a grin.
SI Now: Mark Wahlberg on his love of Boston sports
Pro Football Now: NFL Hall of Fame inductee Ronnie Lott