It was Saturday morning, and I was belly-up at a dive bar just outside St. Louis. The Arkansas spring game was on per my request, of course, although no one outside myself seemed to care. They were too busy playing pool.
As the game went on, however, the pool balls seemed to be colliding less and suddenly a small crowd wearing St. Louis Blues jerseys were huddled near the bar, screaming at the silent television. Quarterback Tyler Wilson was putting on a show, and although these confused hockey fans didn’t understand why there was live football on in April, who was winning (it was a spring game after all) or why they were cheering, they were riveted each time Wilson threw the ball on point which was, well, frequently.
When I broached the subject of the next Arkansas head coach, only one of the locals knew what I was talking about. “You mean the dude that crashed his Harley with the blond chick on the back?”
Those a bit more connected to the situation knew that a decision was likely coming soon, although it was hard to anticipate what athletic director Jeff Long had in mind. On Monday, his plans were revealed, and kudos to him for keeping his decision concealed for so long. In 2012, that’s a feat in itself.
John L. Smith, the same John L. Smith who once slapped himself in a press conference, will coach Arkansas in 2012. He leaves Weber State less than six months after taking over the head coaching job there to become a 10-month head coach at a school he left in December of last year. For his efforts, he will make $850,000.
He coached special teams for the Hogs the past three seasons, signing on with Bobby Petrino after being out of the game for two years. Before his hiatus he was the head coach at Michigan State. He finished with a 22-26 record in four campaigns while leading the Spartans but is remembered mainly for his antics in front of a microphone.
Smith will now be tasked to provide instant stability for a program in desperate need of solid ground. He has 10 months and incredible expectations given the talent that he’ll soon be leading. There’s nothing on his resume that tells you this move will work, but then again, we’ve never really seen anything quite like this.
What he does bring, however, is continuity. The importance of this simply cannot be overstated. Smith knows the players who he will be coaching in 2012, has a great relationship with many of them and they absolutely love him.
Running back Knile Davis tweeted that this was “the happiest day of his life,” and others passed along their support through other outlets. Smith also knows almost every coach on staff and has worked with them in the past.
Happy players and prior relationships with coaches doesn't necessarily translate to wins in the SEC, but it certainly shows how far Arkansas has come in just two weeks.
Although some have tried to paint this as a “gamble” hire for Arkansas, what other realistic (key word here) options did they have? They certainly could have promoted from within with a similar contract, but would that have been a better option?
Given the timing of this incident, Long had no other choice but to focus on a coach who the team could rally around. A long-term hire was clearly not an option given the circumstances and calendar obstacles, so instead, Long used an abundance of duct tape to keep his football program in order. It’s not ideal, clearly, but “ideal” flew out the window the day Bobby Petrino flew off his motorcycle.
Smith has certainly stumbled into a bizarre situation. He has one of the nation’s best teams, and certainly, one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, for the next 10 months. Unless Arkansas wins the national championship, he will be gone following the season and will be replaced by a higher-profile coach.
He has absolutely nothing to lose, and his team appears to be rallying at the right time. House money is incredibly dangerous given the right set of circumstances. More meaningful than house money, however, is talent.
A week ago, John L. Smith was recruiting much lesser talent to commit to Weber State. Now, he is back at the school he only recently left, and has the best quarterback-running back combo in the country if Knile Davis can stay healthy. And then there’s Tyler Wilson, who was good enough to distract a handful of St. Louis hockey fans with his pristine passes in Arkansas’ spring game. That takes skills, folks.
Nothing about this situation has made much sense, but Jeff Long's decision to bring back a familiar face to lead this gifted group does.