Arkansas Razorback Football: Evaluating the Hiring of John L. Smith


In just over three short weeks Arkansas fans have endured as much uncertainty about the future of their football program as any team in the country not named Penn State. With the announcement on Monday of John L. Smith as the interim head coach for the Razorbacks for the next ten months, Hog fans still face an uncertain future with their beloved program.

Starting with an April 1, motorcycle accident, a domino effect of a cruel April Fool’s joke that seems extremely unfair to Razorback Nation has led to the loss of one of the top head coaches in college football despite no laws being broken by said coach, no major NCAA violations reported over the last four years, no NCAA cover up or scandal casting a shadow over the program.

Because of a ghastly immoral decision(s) by then head coach Bobby Petrino Arkansas fans have no choice but to emblazon Razorback Red with Arkansas pride across their chest and take what fate has dealt the millions of fans across the nation… more uncertainty.

Through the ebb and flow of Petrino’s accident and the aftermath of negative publicity that ensued, Arkansas fans stood tall when head athletic director Jeff Long fired their head coach on April 10. Even if all fans did not truly understand the firing or support the decision at the time, they backed their athletic director and took the brunt of negative media attention from national talking heads and from rival college football fans.

Arkansas fans stood taller as more information came out regarding the personal life of their fallen leader after the fact. In hindsight the correct decision had been made as the leaking evidence supported the potential for an even bigger Petrino scandal with time permitting.

The unfortunate motorcycle accident may have been a blessing in disguise but it sure has not felt like it to a fan base hungry for their first SEC Championship Title Game win and first BCS Bowl win.

As soon as Jeff Long announced his decision regarding Petrino’s dismissal the next logical question that needed to be answered was who will become the next head coach at Arkansas? Who will help mold an impressive grouping of talent and returning players to another season as good as last year’s 11-2 team with a No. 5 ranking at season’s end?

Reports claimed that 12 different individuals came to Long expressing interest in Arkansas’ opening. What Arkansas fans may never find out is which 12 coaches came forward.

Obviously the list of 12 was not impressive enough for Long to pull the trigger on any of them as a long term leader of the Hogs. Only John L. Smith was worthy enough to lead the Hogs in 2012 even if only for 10 months at the tune of $850,000.

Smith, 63 years old, has 18 years of head coaching experience between Idaho (1989-1994), Utah State (1995-1997), Louisville (1998-2002), and Michigan State (2002-2006).

None of the members of the current coaching staff has one year of heading coaching experience in the SEC or at an AQ school.

Smith has worked with eight of the nine full-time assistants on staff. Smith also knows the current players having only left the program four months ago to take over at his alma mater Weber State, a Division-II or FCS program in Utah.

Long’s underlying statement when hiring Smith was very clear, he wanted a coach to oversee the program, not cause a distraction among the current players while making a smooth transition into the role of head coach, even if only for 10 months. Keep the status quo; don’t change the playbook or the week after week routine of the past four years.

Arkansas returns 16 starters from the 2011 season, 24 players are on the roster with at least one start. Included in the list of returning players are three of five starting offensive linemen, three of four starting defensive linemen, and two potential Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis.

The only hire for Jeff Long would be a bad hire. Smith seems the safest bet to see Petrino’s plan for 2012 through to completion but does little to forward the program.

The question that will not truly be answered until Saturday September 15 against Alabama is Smith’s ability to make game time decisions for the Hogs. One can assume that Smith will let his coordinators do their job and the talent on the roster will win games. But what happens to in-game changes in strategy?

In 2010 offensive coordinator Paul Petrino stepped outside of his brother’s shadow to lead the Illini to a record setting year in points scored (423), points per game average (35.54) and guided Mikel Leshoure to a school single-season rushing record in rushing yards with 1,697.

During the 2011 season Paul coached wide receiver A.J. Jenkins to one of the top offensive years in Fighting Illini history finishing two yards shy of the single-season record of 1,278 receiving yards. Jenkins 90 receptions led the Big Ten.

Cutting Tyler Wilson loose within the offense or handing the ball off to Knile Davis 20 or more times a game is a safe bet; seems hard to lose with either option.

Paul Haynes was co-defensive coordinator for Ohio State in 2011 but did not get to call defensive plays for OSU. Haybes got to show his abilities in the Cotton Bowl against Kansas State for the Hogs. KSU was one-dimensional but Haynes shutdown that one-dimension (Collin Klein) and in the process has given hope to Razorback fans for the upcoming season.

The troublesome part for some Razorback fans is Smith’s ability to lead the team. Smith had some curious moments leading the Spartans in 2006. How will Smith handle the pressure of leading a top 10 team in the nation?

Smith’s tenure as the special teams coach for Arkansas has had unparalleled success not seen at any other time in the last 20 plus years for the Razorbacks. Kicker Zach Hocker and punter Dylan Breeding may be the best specialist combo in college football during the 2012 season.

Dennis Johnson (2010) and Joe Adams (2011) have produced All-American seasons as kickoff and punt return specialist with Smith’s direction.

There have been letdowns on special teams as well. Most can remember last year’s trick punt Alabama executed for a touchdown and LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu’s momentum changing punt return for a touchdown, his first of the year.

Grading John L. Smith’s hire as interim coach by Jeff Long will come after Arkansas’ first loss, whenever that may be if at all.

Arkansas fans have every reason to hope for a Larry Coker situation in Miami as opposed to a Jack Crowe-Joe Kines-Danny Ford scenario the Hogs endured in 1992.

Coker took over for Butch Davis as the Hurricanes head coach after Davis departed for the Cleveland Browns in 2001. Until then Coker had spent 15 years as a college offensive coordinator for Tulsa, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Miami. Once he got his chance to finally become a head coach he guided an extremely talented Miami team to a 12-0 record.

Coker, much like Smith, was well received by the players on the team.

Razorback fans may have forgotten about going through a similar scenario 20 years ago, Arkansas’ first year in the SEC.

Jack Crowe was fired after losing at home to the Citadel 10-3 after two disappointing seasons as head coach. The up and down season under interim coach Joe Kines and Danny Ford overseeing the team led to an inconsistent season and confusion on the team. The finished product was a 3-7-1 record with losses to Memphis and SMU, but one amazing last minute victory over No. 4 Tennessee in Knoxville.

Granted the Razorbacks did not have as much returning talent on the 1992 team as they do now, but do not forget that 1992 team was preseason top 20 by Sports Illustrated.

Lost in the bravado of the statement by Long is 12 coaches came forward but why did he not outwardly search on his own? The Arkansas job is an elite position when handled accordingly, see Petrino’s on the field accomplishments over the past two seasons.

Perhaps Long did conduct a search of his own but the timing of the hire did not work for his targeted coaches. Either way Long has painted Arkansas and himself into a corner by hiring Smith as interim coach. Arkansas fans are now expecting a top of the line coach in 10 months, nothing less.

Come December one can assume several head coaching  jobs will be available across the nation, especially in the SEC. Tennessee, Mississippi State, and Georgia are possible scenarios. Now Arkansas is competing against every other college football team in the nation with an opening and in the SEC for a new head coach. This makes a new hire even tougher.

In December no active NFL coach will leave their team during the season because of what happened to Petrino when he left Atlanta in 2007; not unless said NFL team’s owner, general manager, and local media have all signed off agreeing to the departure. That still may not be enough to dodge the negative publicity of conspiring media outlets.

By no means does anyone envy the decisions Long has had to make over the last three plus weeks. All college football teams are in the middle of spring practices. Hiring a coach away from another team during this time of year could only rouse more bad blood and negative press for reasons that make little logic other than there is an unsaid rule on when a coach is allowed to leave one job for another.

If Weber State was a Division 1-A school in an AQ conference the national media would have torn Smith apart for leaving his alma mater four months after taking the job even if the move makes sense to every other college football fan in the nation.

One can only hope that Long has a suitor in waiting, a suitor that will be a breath of fresh air come December that rallies recruits along the way. Smith’s job overseeing the program does not ensure recruiting success for the next coach in line.

Few recruits base their recruiting decisions off loving the campus, location, academic programs or the school itself. Many recruits will wisely want to know what scheme the coach will be running. Until December or even January Arkansas will have no answer.

Many recruits will want to know if their personality matches with the coaching staffs’ personality, another answer that will have to wait until December or later.

One can only assume that each coach on staff understands the situation at hand. If not, how will Smith be able to keep each assistant and both coordinators on track with a team first approach instead of a “me” first concept? One cannot forget that each assistant coach on staff is auditioning for a shot at being the next head coach at Arkansas or worse a job anywhere in 2013.

What happens if the two sides of the football start blaming one another for poor performances? Will coaches start throwing each other under the bus if the wheels come off?

The one intangible Arkansas has going for them is strong leadership by the upperclassmen. Each player seems to understand what is at stake and winning cures all. Bobby Petrino laid down a culture of accountability on the football field and a blue collar work ethic for his team. John L. Smith and staff will continue that same approach during each week of the season.

Perhaps Petrino’s last legacy at Arkansas will be the national championship won because of him but despite him. The one season he forfeited to his mentor John L. Smith. The type of season he may never get another chance to attain.

Long’s only hire could be a bad one. Evaluating Smith’s job at the end of the season is an all or nothing grade. If a SEC Championship Game berth does not materialize this has been a failed effort even with an 11 win season. This team was built to achieve more.

Long’s grade through the Petrino scandal has been an A plus. Hiring Smith makes sense assuming all parts continue forward as expected. If not, Smith may be run out of town and the Arkansas fan base will second guess Long’s handling of the 2012 season for the rest of his tenure as AD at Arkansas.

Should Smith falter as coach this puts even more pressure on Long’s “homerun” hire… it better be a great hire or Long has wasted the abilities one of the most talented teams Arkansas has had in years.