Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
John Smith Long’s choice to lead Hogs
10-month deal to coach Arkansas worth $850,000
Arkansas assistant coach John L. Smith yells plays to his players during the Razorbacks’ game against Troy in November 2009.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long turned to a familiar face to take over a Razorbacks football program that has been without a head coach for nearly two weeks after the April 10 firing of Bobby Petrino. John L. Smith, a three-year assistant at Arkansas who left in December for the head coaching job at Weber State in Ogden, Utah, has signed a 10-month agreement to coach the Razorbacks in 2012.
- Playing career: Weber State, quarterback, linebacker, 1968-71
- Weber State, graduate assistant, 1971
- Montana, assistant, 1972-76
- Nevada, defensive coordinator, 1977-81
- Idaho, defensive coordinator, 1982-85
- Wyoming, defensive coordinator, 1986
- Washington State, defensive coordinator, 1987-88
- Idaho, head coach, 1989-94
- Utah State, head coach, 1995-97
- Louisville, head coach, 1998-2002
- Michigan State, head coach, 2003-2006
- Arkansas, special teams coordinator, 2009-11
- Weber State, head coach, 2012
Smith, 63, agreed to a guaranteed salary of $850,000 with incentives tied to on field and academic performance, including a $200,000 bonus for winning the BCS championship game.
Smith also agreed, according to his contract, to keep all members of the coaching staff, the strength coaches and support staff in their current positions through his 10-month term.
Smith, who was scheduled to fly into Fayetteville on Monday night on a university plane, will be introduced at a 2 p.m. news conference today at the Broyles Athletic Center. He did not return phone calls or texts made to his cell phone.
Arkansas players and coaches campaigned for Long to make an in-house hire, and the hiring of Smith would seem to indicate that the Razorbacks’ schemes on both sides of the ball will remain intact heading into a season in which the Razorbacks are likely to be a top-15 team.
“In the last couple of weeks, I came to the realization I could provide guidance and stability to a program I’m extremely invested in,” Smith said in a university release. “While at Arkansas, we worked to make the Razor-backs a top-5 team and much of the credit for that goes to the student-athletes.
“Throughout the spring, the assistant coaches and student athletes have shown incredible focus and character, which we will use to build on as we work to achieve our goals for 2012.”
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Smith left a four-year deal at his alma mater with a base salary of $130,000 per year at Weber State. Smith’s contract at Weber State, which also had modest incentives, also called for him to pay $6,250 per year of his contract - or $25,000 - for leaving early, according to a Dec. 28 story in the Standard-Examiner of Ogden, Utah.
There is a clause in Smith’s letter of agreement that would appear to cover Smith’s buyout at Weber State.
“The University will work with you to provide funding ... to assist you in meeting any such obligation,” the agreement says. A native of Idaho Falls, Idaho, Smith has a career coaching record of 132-86 in 18 seasons covering six stops. His last head coaching job was a four-year stint at Michigan State (2003-2006),during which he won the Big Ten Coach of the Year award in his first season in 2003, but finished with a 22-26 record.
Smith, who was succeeded by Petrino at Louisville in 2003, had Petrino on his staff during head-coaching stops at Idaho, Utah State and Louisville.
Petrino, who led Arkansas to a 34-17 record in four seasons, was fired by Long on April 10 for conduct unbecoming a head coach after Petrino’s actions in hiring 25-year-old Jessica Dorrell, with whom he had an admitted inappropriate relationship and then lied about her presence on his motorcycle during an April 1 wreck in rural Madison County.
In a statement released by the university, Long said Smith approached him about taking the reins of a program that has gone 21-5 the past two seasons, with appearances in the Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl, and the prospects of being an SEC and BCS championship contender this fall.
“Coach Smith brings a wealth of football knowledge, BCS conference head-coaching experience, passion for the game and a close familiarity with the current team and coaching staff,” Long said in the statement.
“I firmly believe that his selection is in the best interests of the young men in our program and will also best serve the mission of our football program and university in achieving success on and off the field in the upcoming season and in the long term.”
Smith’s salary will be split equally between the UA’s athletic department and the Razorback Foundation, with each agreeing to pay $425,000. His contract also includes a “right of reassignment,” in which Long could move him into an administrative, noncoaching position at any time.
Arkansas defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell, speaking at a Razorback Club function in Pine Bluff, said he knew it had to be a difficult decision for Smith to leave his alma mater.
“It says a lot about him, though, that he would leave there to come back to help this program, because of his feelings about the program,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell said there were a lot of smiling players in a team meeting Monday afternoon.
“They knew the best opportunity for Arkansas to be successful next year was to keep a coaching staff together, offensively and defensively, so I think the kids were happy,” he said.
Smith has coached with or worked with all but one full time assistant on the current Arkansas staff, assistant head coach and linebackers coach Taver Johnson. Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes came on board at Arkansas as Smith was leaving in December, but Haynes worked on Smith’s staffs at Louisville and Michigan State.
Smith, a 1972 Weber State graduate, left his alma mater in a lurch just a week after the Wildcats’ conclusion of spring practices.
“We knew when we hired John L. as our head football coach that we were getting a high-profile coach that we felt would move our program forward,” Weber State Athletic Director Jerry Bovee said in a statement. “Obviously, the timing of this announcement is problematic, but at this point we are going to move forward in making decisions that are in the best interest of our program.”
Bovee also sent out this message on his Twitter account: “Wow, just when you think the pieces to the puzzle are all in place, something big happens to create chaos and the picture changes. Ouch!”
The mood was much different on the Arkansas campus, and the Razorbacks turned to social media to express their thoughts.
All-SEC tailback Knile Davis wrote on Twitter: “The happiest day of my life ... hearing that John L. Smith is coming back to the ville to b our head coach...#priceless.”
Wrote tailback Dennis Johnson via Twitter: “Back again!!! John L Smith!!!!!”
And center Travis Swanson posted, “Couldn’t be happier than I am right now.”
Former Razorbacks Jake Bequette, Ryan Mallett, Michael Smith and Broderick Green all applauded the hire via Twitter, with Smith saying Long “hit a HOME RUN,” and Mallett calling Smith “a great guy and a great coach.”
Arkansas players appeared to be in good spirits after being briefed about Smith’s hiring during a 4 p.m. meeting at the Broyles Center. The players said they had been asked not to comment, but a selection of players, including Davis, Johnson, Chris Gragg, Eric Bennett, Alvin Bailey and Jason Peacock all indicated that they were pleased by Smith’s return.
Arkansas’ news release stated that Long would continue to evaluate the football program “in anticipation of naming a head coach following the 2012 season.
“The current appointment will allow the program to identify a head coach for the future of the program in a time frame that is more conducive to attracting the potential candidates expected for one of the nation’s premier football head-coaching positions.” Information for this article was contributed by sportswriters Troy Schulte and Matthew Harris of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Front Section, Pages 1 on 04/24/2012