John L. Smith might not have given his introductory press conference as Arkansas’ interim coach Tuesday without stern advice from his wife, Diana.
“She said, ‘Here’s the deal. You’re going back to people that love you and back to a team that is a good football team and you have a chance to fight for a national championship,’" Smith said. “She said, ‘You’ve done this your entire life and this might be the only chance you have left.’ So she said, ‘You’re going back!’ And here I am.”
The man known for his offseason skydiving endeavors and running with the bulls in Pamplona actually needed a little extra push.
So after struggling with the decision to leave Weber State, his alma mater, just four months after accepting the head-coaching job, Smith, 63, decided to get in touch with Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long shortly after Long fired Bobby Petrino on April 10. From there, it was a match made in 10-month heaven.
“Today, I firmly believe we’ve hired a coach that will serve in the best interest of our student-athletes and the university, both in the upcoming season and in helping us shape the long-term future of our program,” Long said just before he introduced Smith. “There’s no question it’s the best decision for this team, for the 2012 season.”
And that’s exactly what Smith is in Fayetteville for -- this team.
Long made it clear that this hire was made on an interim basis because it will create a better time frame for “attracting candidates we would expect for one of the nation’s premier college football head-coaching positions.”
Arkansas brought in Smith, who coached special teams for the Razorbacks for the past three years and has worked with eight Arkansas assistants, in order to keep this team together. This was a very comfortable hire for Long, and it showed with just how comfortable Smith was when he referred to stud running back Knile Davis as “Ka-Nile” at his presser.
You don’t intentionally botch a star’s name without having some clout.
This hire was made to keep from losing this team if an outsider arrived. This hire was made to bring a familiar face to a team that didn’t want change to interfere with all the talent it had.
This hire was made to win now and worry about the future along the way.
“Our expectations here are still the same,” Smith said. “Nothing’s going to slow down. In fact, we’re going to speed up. Our expectations are that were going to go ahead and we’re going to battle and we’re going to fight for a national title.
“Let’s make it a special year.”
Smith will look to make it a special year by avoiding much change. He isn’t looking to completely take over Arkansas’ program. He’ll have veto power, but as he put it, he’ll let his “coordinators coordinate.”
He’ll work with the defense and special teams, but he’ll let offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and the other offensive coaches do their jobs without much interference.
No need to get in the way of a team filled with offensive fun and Heisman Trophy candidates like Davis and quarterback Tyler Wilson.
Smith sees himself as “a mentor,” “an adviser,” and “a minor decision-maker.
“I have all the confidence in the world in what’s going to take place and I know these coaches,” he said. “… We have good coaches and I’m not going to goof them up.”
Smith’s 40 years of coaching experience, including 18 as a head coach, were certainly factors in Long’s decision, but the fact that Smith is familiar and knows what will be expected in such a short amount of time was exactly what Long wanted and felt his program needed.
However, there is uncertainty. Most of lies in what will happen in 2013. It doesn’t sound like Long is looking at Smith as a long-term option, but Smith didn’t rule out that he might throw his hat in the ring if he succeeds this fall. But recruits will likely be a little stumped as well.
What exactly will coaches tell recruits? Will any of the coaches on this current staff be there next year? What will change if/when another coach comes in?
There isn’t much Smith or any of his coaches can say, but Smith assures he’ll sell the school, the program and the coaches, all in that order.
“We’re going to do everything that we can do to sell every guy that we think can play -- every player out there -- to come out, take a look at this institution,” Smith said. “… This is a top-10 program. Program, not individual. So that’s the way that we’re going to approach it.”
And a winning season should definitely help. There’s no question about it, but the first sign of danger could turn recruits off, making things rather awkward. Things could also get awkward if this experiment doesn’t work. Not getting to 10 wins could reek of failure because Smith was brought in to win now -- not in 11 months.
There certainly is risk in this hire, but players and administrators are convinced this was the right decision, so they hope those around them will jump on board. Smith made it clear that this program can't proceed further without its fans, like the record 45,250 who showed up for the spring game.
“We just have to continue on,” he said. “Let’s get more excited. Let’s lock it up together and trudge on. We have to make it a special season. We have to embrace the adversity -- I said we’re going to be better because of it -- and we’re moving on.
“Fans, come on out.”
Oh, they will … ready for wins.