John L. Smith made the unlikely jump from FCS School to National Title Contender on Tuesday
University of Arkansas Vice Chancellor and Athletic Director Jeff Long stepped to the podium with a bit more alacrity on Tuesday, eager to distance himself from the sordid revelations of Bobby Petrino’s exit with the hiring of John L. Smith.
And though Smith’s appointment has drawn favorable reviews, it’s been particularly effective at preserving a static reality under the guise of change.
“Jeff Long gets the early vote for Administrator of the Year,” declared Yahoo! Sports’ Pat Forde.
“Arkansas Thinks Big in Hiring New Coach,” voiced Pete Thamel of the New York Times.
“Ludicrous and inspired,” vacillated an only slightly more restrained Stuart Mandel of Sports Illustrated.
But curiously absent from the heaps of congratulatory remarks has been any mention of Arkansas’ treatment of Weber State. While a select few have seen fit to disparage Smith’s abandonment of his alma mater after only four-and-a-half months on the job, there's been little denouncement of Arkansas’ poaching Smith at such an inopportune time.
Never mind that Arkansas invited these unpleasantries upon itself when it rolled the dice on Petrino’s considerable baggage. And forget that Weber State had devoted significant time and energy toward making Smith the centerpiece of its media campaigns. Just months after Arkansas disinterestedly waved goodbye, and in spite of its frequent professions of “integrity,” “leadership” and “character,” the Razorbacks pounced on the more vulnerable Wildcats.
Was it appropriate for Arkansas to hire John L. Smith away from Weber State?
That’s not to say Smith should escape criticism entirely. He was, after all, the first to contact Arkansas about its opening, and his sudden departure does leave the Wildcats in worse shape than when he arrived such a short time ago. But coaches’ acting in their self-interest is hardly new, and at 63 years old, it's difficult to censure Smith too harshly for leaping at the opportunity to jump from an FCS school to a title contender.
More disquieting has been Arkansas’ willingness to hemorrhage its problems onto another program. Although Long’s poaching might not be particularly novel behavior from an athletic department, it is discreditable conduct from the supposedly ethical guardians - Chancellor Gearhart and Arkansas' Board of Trustees - of the state’s flagship institution who gave sanction to the A.D.'s unsavory methods.
Sure, a university’s football program receives a certain degree of ethical latitude given the mountains of revenue and notoriety it generates, but Arkansas’ actions are somewhat galling in light of its wager on Petrino, and flatly hypocritical given the virtues used to articulate the ideal coaching candidate.
So while many of us will point to the luring of Smith as just another example of the business of college athletics, the Razorbacks’ move seems decidedly out of turn given the timing and ingredients required to compel the move. And though I understand the University’s desire to maintain continuity, I’m inclined to ask why the ‘Hogs couldn’t promote someone from the current staff? Yes, Smith offers the additional benefit of head-coaching experience, but does that really merit stripping another school of its coach this late in the Spring?
I also understand Razorback fans’ desire to move on, but ignoring the University’s missteps strikes me as entitled behavior.
For a school still very much in the wake of an embarrassing scandal that reached the state’s most visible employee, Smith’s appointment represents another dangerous wager on the university’s reputation. And despite voicing the appropriate clichés, Smith’s hiring, coupled with the mistreatment of Weber State, hints at a surprisingly unscrupulous group of "leaders."