Arkansas' decision to make Smith interim a fascinating experiment
Arkansas has hired former assistant John L. Smith on a one-year interim basis
The decision is at once ludicrous and inspired, unforeseen and yet obvious
Smith's Michigan State tenure was a debacle, but he'll bring stability to Hogs
That's the only word to describe Arkansas' decision to replace the disgraced and departed Bobby Petrino by hiring John L. Smith as its interim coach. It's not good or bad, smart or dumb. We can't apply traditional adjectives to such a unique coaching experiment.
By bringing in an outsider who might as well be an insider, who has 18 years of experience as a college head coach and who was willing to jilt alma mater Weber State for a tenuous and likely temporary position, Arkansas AD Jeff Long has achieved the impossible. He's managed to make a hire that is somehow both ludicrous and inspired, unforeseen yet obvious in many ways.
And how about the fact that Smith, whose Weber State tenure lasted nearly five months, is replacing the very same coach at Arkansas who replaced him at Louisville nearly a decade earlier? The same coach who served under him for seven seasons while climbing the coaching ranks, then rescued Smith from coaching purgatory three years ago by putting him on Arkansas' staff.
Did someone say "fascinating"?
Granted, others may have different opinions about Smith's hiring. Michigan State fans are likely flabbergasted by the move. Five years after going 22-26 (including 3-13 in conference play his last two seasons) and flaming out at the Big Ten school, the 63-year-old is now being handed the keys to an SEC championship contender? Really? Even those who don't follow the Spartans likely remember some of Smith's greatest hits, like this 2005 halftime meltdown at Ohio State, or this infamous press conference self-slap.
Smith was named Big Ten Coach of the Year when the Spartans went 8-5 in his first season in 2003, but the next three seasons in East Lansing were synonymous with blowout defeats and epic collapses (most notably, Notre Dame's 16-point fourth quarter rally in '06, a game that signaled the beginning of the end for Smith). To his credit, Smith did engineer the biggest comeback in college football history, rallying from a 38-3 deficit to beat Northwestern that year. Unfortunately, it was his only Big Ten win that last season.
On the other hand, current Arkansas players -- whose football lives were thrown into chaos by Petrino's indiscretions -- are seemingly thrilled by Monday's news. On Twitter, star running back Knile Davis called it "The happiest day of my life." Running back Dennis Johnson and recently departed defensive end Jake Bequette both capped their reactions with exclamation points. The former special teams coach's return to a program he left in December means no new system and as little disruption as possible prior to the season, when the loaded Razorbacks fully intend to compete for the conference and national crowns.
Prior to his Michigan State debacle, Smith did demonstrate he can coach a little bit. He made Louisville's long-dormant program relevant again, taking it to five straight bowls and setting it up for inclusion in the Big East, where Petrino took it to greater heights. Before that, Smith led Utah State to just its second bowl game in 35 years; before that, he led Idaho to five I-AA playoff appearances in six years. (Note that Petrino ran or installed the offense at all of those stops.)
Long presumably put out feelers to non-interim candidates and realized he wasn't going to land a desirable permanent coach in the middle of April. The press release announcing Smith's hire says as much in the last paragraph. The options on the current staff were equally uninspiring: The two coordinators (Paul Petrino and Paul Haynes) and the current interim coach (Taver Johnson) just arrived this offseason. None of the current assistants are more qualified than a guy with 18 years' head coaching experience. Had Smith never left for Weber State, his appointment would have been an anticlimactic no-brainer.
The more puzzling element and the biggest source of fascination is why Smith would give up considerable job security and burn bridges at his alma mater to accept a job that comes with a 10-month expiration date.
The eccentric, adventure-seeking Smith -- he's run with the bulls in Spain, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, skydived and trained with Marines -- always seemed like a more natural fit at a low-profile Western outpost like Weber State, but he ditched that gig quicker than Petrino did the Falcons. (These guys sure have a pattern of awkward departures. Smith informed his Louisville players he was leaving for Michigan State at halftime of their bowl game, after word leaked out.) Arkansas, of course, is the exact opposite type of job, one where the pressure will be immense and Smith's every move documented. (Literally. First move, coach: Learn about FOIA requests.)
Smith presumably sees the opportunity of a lifetime. Three years ago he was thrilled just to be the special teams coach for an SEC school. Now, he'll be the head coach of a team that finished last season in the top five and lists a future NFL quarterback (Tyler Wilson) among its 15 returning starters. And since every coach goes in believing he'll achieve wild success, Smith may well think the Razorbacks will have such a great season that Long will want to make the arrangement permanent.
Meanwhile, the rest of the SEC (and Michigan State fans) will giddily await Arkansas' implosion.
How fun is this?
Give credit to Long for thinking outside the box. No question, this thing could blow up in his face if Arkansas goes 7-5. That could have happened under Johnson or any other interim coach, but because Long made such an unusual hire, he won't be forgiven like he would have with another move. Still, the school just received a $1.25 million donation specifically in response to Long's leadership in handling the Petrino matter. He'll be OK, and he gets a head start in attempting to land a big name in the next coaching carousel.
But what of Smith? Suddenly Les Miles is no longer the Most Interesting Man in the SEC. (And suddenly SEC Media Days can't get here soon enough.) Will a 63-year-old guy who spent seemingly half of his Michigan State tenure on the hot seat take advantage of his former boss/protégé's philandering and perform the ultimate professional redemption? Or is he doomed to a shorter and reverse replication of Ron Zook's Big Ten/SEC career arc?
Nobody knows, but it will be fascinating to find out.