Happy hour: Smith jumps in, with a smile

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012
In his first public appearance as the new Arkansas football coach, John L. Smith said, “Everything’s in place here.” A good football team, great fans and great coaches are the ingredients for a “special year,” he said.
Photo by Michael Woods
In his first public appearance as the new Arkansas football coach, John L. Smith said, “Everything’s in place here.” A good football team, great fans and great coaches are the ingredients for a “special year,” he said.

— John L. Smith joked and clowned and shouted and talked in undertones, and carried on just like he normally does during his first full day as the 31st head football coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks.

In stark contrast to his seriously serious and sometimes dour predecessor Bobby Petrino, Smith conducted a rollicking one-man show at the podium in his introductory news conference at the Broyles Athletic Center on Tuesday.

John L. Smith speaks following his introduction as Arkansas' football coach on Tuesday.

John L. Smith - Introduction

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Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson reacts to the hiring of John L. Smith as the Razorbacks' head coach.

Tyler Wilson - New Head Coach

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Arkansas running back Knile Davis reacts to the hiring of John L. Smith as the Razorbacks' head coach.

Knile Davis - New Head Coach

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Arkansas kicker Zach Hocker reacts to the hiring of John L. Smith as the Razorbacks' head coach.

Zach Hocker - New Head Coach

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Download Smith's agreement letter


  • 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

Informed that his hire was being viewed as a “mixed bag of nuts,” Smith, clad in a dark suit with pointed cowboy boots, shot back “Are you referring to me?”

Smith, 63, returned from his alma mater Weber State to run the program for which he coordinated special teams and coached strongside linebackers the past three seasons, accepting a 10-month contract to direct what he expects to be a successful 2012 season for the Razorbacks.

“Everything’s in place here,” Smith said. “You’ve got a good football team. We’ve got the best fans in the world. We’ve got a great coaches. Let’s make it a special year.”

Smith, who Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long admitted hadn’t been in his thought process after Petrino was fired April 10 until Smith called senior associate athletic director Jon Fagg to express his interest, has brought a new vibe to the coach’s seat at Arkansas.

“John L. is not any different than I thought I would get. If you know him, he’s an extrovert,” Long said.

“There are going to be a few more laughs around the office, and that’s not a bad thing,” running backs coach Tim Horton said.

“If there’s a time in which a team is mature enough to handle a change, it’s now, because we’ve had the other way, the intense way, for four or five years,” quarterback Tyler Wilson said. “We understand how to come to work every day and compete and grind and do all that.”

Long suggested Smith could win his way into a longer-term deal than his 10-month agreement for $850,000 if the Razorbacks win big in 2012.

“At the end of the season, we’ll have an indication of the job he’s done and we’ll be prepared for the future of the program,” Long said. “But it’s not a foregone conclusion that a certain number of wins will result in him being our permanent head coach.”

Smith, who took a pay cut of $105,000 per year to take the head coaching reins at Weber State, will earn $300,000 more in one season at Arkansas than he would have made in four years at Weber State.

Beyond the bigger payday, however, Smith spoke of making the 2012 season one to remember for the Razorbacks. In describing how his wife, Diana, helped him decide to come back, Smith relayed a conversation the two had.

“She said, “You’re going back to people that love you. You’re going 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!’ Here I am.”

Smith has not worked a game as a head coach since his 2006 team at Michigan State went 4-8 to finish him off with three consecutive losing seasons and a 22-26 record in East Lansing, Mich.

When asked if he was seeking a measure of redemption for his tenure at Michigan State, Smith didn’t dodge.

“Now, a little redemption for Michigan State? Yes, the answer is yes,” Smith said.

Long shed a little more light on his hiring process Tuesday.

“To be honest with you ... there were a lot of things going on and obviously dealing with the tragedy and the circumstances surrounding Coach Petrino’s departure, it took me awhile to get focused to be quite honest,” he said. “[Considering Smith] had not been a thought until I was told he inquired through Jon Fagg. Then obviously I said, ‘Wow, I should be thinking about John L.’ ”

Arkansas players and assistant coaches were on record as saying they wanted Long’s hire to be someone who would leave their schemes intact, and Smith might have been be the least-disruptive coach Long could find with spring drills already completed at most colleges across the country.

“Today I firmly believe we’ve hired a coach who will serve in the best interests 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. “There’s no question in my mind that this is the best decision for this team for the 2012 season.”

Arkansas players, who have widely lauded the hiring of Smith, understand the importance of the 2012 season.

“What we’re going to do to help him is we’re going to go out and win games,” linebacker Alonzo Highsmith said. “He’s a great coach, so the more we win, in the eyes of the fans and Jeff Long, who knows what can happen at the end of the season.”

Smith did dodge the question when he was asked when he contacted Arkansas to express his interest in the job. At least three times he addressed the difficulty he faced in leaving his alma mater before coaching a game at the Football Championship Subdivision school in Ogden, Utah.

“Again, having to leave there, I don’t know how many times I’ve said it: It was a very, very hard decision,” Smith said. “But again, part of that, the understanding that was shown to me from not only the administration but on down the line, they have to take a look at it and say, ‘What if you were in this situation? What would you do?’ ”

Smith conducted his first team meeting as the Razorbacks’ head coach Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. He said he has to travel to Louisville, Ky., where he still owns a home, to take care of some business and hopes to be permanently in Fayetteville some time this weekend.

What the Hogs say

A quick look at what Arkansas players had to say about the hiring of John L. Smith as the Razorbacks coach:

“It’s always good to play for a set of coaches that you like. I think we’ve got a great relationship with every one of these guys, and we’re going to give them every chance in the world to stick around here and continue their job right here at Arkansas.”

— Quarterback Tyler Wilson

“I think this is the best move for us, for this team, for this program, for this year.”

— Wide receiver Cobi Hamilton

“I heard John L. from another teammate and I didn’t believe it. I just dismissed it. Then later on that day [Athletic Director] Jeff Long told us. Once he told us, everybody was like, ‘Yes.’ There was a happy feeling going around when he [Long] let us know it was going to be him. It gave us a boost, and we felt, now it’s time for us to keep going on this national championship run.”

— Linebacker Alonzo Highsmith

“Not a lot is going to change. Like he said, he’s going to let his coordinators coordinate. ... He’s going to be the mediator, overlooking everything and taking care of special teams.”

— Running back Knile Davis

“I had zero idea that Coach Smith was a candidate for the job. I was super surprised when I heard his name, but I was very, very excited, and the whole team can back me up of this. We just all felt a sense or relief and excitement at the same time.”

— Place-kicker Zach Hocker

What national media are saying about John L. Smith

“If John L. Smith’s presumably brief tenure as Arkansas head coach is anything like his time in charge at Michigan State (2003-06), there will be outlandish remarks. There will be goofy facial expressions. And those postgame press conferences will be worthwhile viewing, win or lose. ... Defiant until the end, Smith still had some twinkle as he walked out the door. He didn’t work at Michigan State, but he also didn’t bore. That’s Smith. Joke making. Fun loving. Grudge holding.

— Joe Rexrode,

Lansing (Mich.) State Journal

“One drove his career into a ditch on a motorcycle. The other now will try to ride his off into the sunset with a championship.”

— Eric Crawford,

Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal

“My favorite moment of the John L. Smith era at Weber State — all 4 1/2 months of it — was the crock pot full of alma mater nonsense he served during his introductory news conference. It was passionate. It was poignant. And as it turned out, it was crap. ... Smith gave something back to Weber State. It’s called a kick to the groin. The next time the Bo Ryans of the world try to explain why they won’t let a player transfer without restrictions, I’m going to remind them of this latest hog and pony show. It is Reason No. 9,213 why college coaches have a major credibility problem.”

— Gene Wojciechowski,

“The Arkansas players pledged solidarity two weeks ago when their head coach, Bobby Petrino, was sent packing. Their message to Hog fans everywhere was that they would stay the course. That’s essentially what Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long did Monday in bringing back Petrino mentor and former Arkansas assistant John L. Smith to see the Hogs through the 2012 season. It might not be a big splash nationally. Then again, who does make a big-splash hire in late April in college football? More importantly, the Hogs weren’t looking to make a splash. They were looking for stability, and that’s what the 63-year-old Smith brings to an Arkansas program that seemingly has most of the pieces in place to break through and win its first SEC championship next season.

— Chris Low,

“Arkansas doesn’t need a Danica Patrick trading paint. It needs a Greyhound driver keeping it between the lines. Arkansas doesn’t need a lightning rod at this point, it needs continuity. We all know what’s at stake. This could be Arkansas’ best team in 35 years. For the moment, today, Long didn’t screw it up because he is staking his job that Smith won’t screw it up. Nothing against John L. Yes, he’s 63 and somewhat of a retread. But at this point in Arkansas’ history, maybe low-key is good. A BCS bowl for Smith would be his first as a head coach. But Petrino just led Arkansas to its first BCS bowl in 25 years. This is still Arkansas.”

— Dennis Dodd,

Sports, Pages 19 on 04/25/2012