John L. Smith has been handed the keys to a Ferrari.
“You can’t keep it,” the dealer said, as Smith marveled at his own reflection in the hood. “But it’s yours to drive for a while.”
He didn’t ask “For how long?” or “Why me?” Instead, he hastily ripped open the driver’s-side door and threw himself deep into the black leather seat that costs more than most master bathrooms.
Admittedly, this luxury rocket on wheels has seen some wear. You can still see the outline of fresh palm prints on the steering wheel from its former owner, but it doesn't bother him in the least. It sure as hell beats driving that Kia that sounds like it smoked one too many cigarettes when it hits 35 miles per hour.
The man who once slapped himself in the face at a press conference is now the coach of one of the country’s finest football teams. He has no business being there—other than his familiarity with the players and the surroundings from his time on the sidelines as a special teams coach—but strangely enough, he might just be the perfect man for the job.
Then again, maybe no such thing exists—at least not this year.
Bobby Petrino’s joyride gone astray turned Arkansas upside down. One of the game’s brightest offensive minds gone in 60 seconds. The Hogs’ athletic director Jeff Long was backed into a corner as “Malzahn, Malzahn, Malzahn!” was shouted wildly across the Internet as the likely savior.
Instead of succumbing to the pressure of committing to a long-term solution, however, Long surprisingly pegged Smith as the man. He's an unlikely, temporary interim coach, regardless of how official or unofficial anyone says this tag truly is.
Smith left a cozy job at Weber State that he had just accepted for a 10-month gig at a school he just departed. With it came the cameras, impossible competition coinciding with equally impossible expectations and the pressure to bring a team together. They didn’t need an offensive guru, but someone who understood.
While the players may understand Smith and took to the change immediately, the rest of us have no idea what the hell might happen when he steps on the field or behind a podium.
He has always been a favorite of the media and only furthered this reputation since taking over the Hog reins. His introductory press conference was a cross between a welcomed hug home and a Louis C.K. bit.
He followed this up by knocking ‘em dead at SEC media days and making “Get your piss hot” a now-known phrase within the college football walls. For those unaware and curious, think of it as “get pumped up,” only much more SEC and charming masculinity.
Talk aside, Smith inherits one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, a running back who can squat a family of four and a defense that may be better than expected. They will be exciting and score more than the majority of the teams they play.
Like everyone else, however, they do have holes—some more glaring than others.
Despite having a young defense that could surprise, it’s still a liability heading into the season. They also lose wide receivers Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright, and while big, capable bodies await their turn to catch passes from the golden-armed Tyler Wilson, it’s unknown what kind of drop-off (if any) we might see. There’s also the health of Knile Davis, which is so vital, yet so impossible to predict.
After the season, regardless of record, health or performance, both Davis and Wilson will depart for the NFL. The very likeable John L. Smith—barring a BCS Championship—will also be out of a job, giving way to a younger coach than can consistently recruit against the SEC’s best. 2012 is the last of this former identity, one final jaunt.
In all likelihood, this magnificent ride will get lost along the way. Perhaps, at home early on against a reloaded Alabama squad or at one or more of the challenging road games this team faces throughout. The big crash could come at the very end, as LSU could spoil Smith’s sendoff in the final week of the regular season.
But what if it doesn’t? What if the ball bounces in the Hogs’ direction and Smith takes this rental team to places they never thought possible? What if he is the one receiving the Gatorade bath following the SEC championship game? What if?
It's a strange game, and while I wouldn't put a bet on this dream season, I wouldn't bet against it, either. Nor would I want to. Smith will shoot for the stars, and there’s a good chance he’ll fail trying, but he’ll do so with a smile, a sound bite and one hell of a story. We won't be able to turn away.
A man has been given new life, a magnificent new toy and hope, even if he is just bridging the gap to the larger overall picture. It doesn't matter. When someone tosses you the keys to something magnificent, you don’t ask questions.
You Get Your Piss Hot and Get In.