As leaked several hours ago, Arkansas has hired John L. Smith on a one-year deal to be interim coach in place of the recently fired Bobby Petrino. Per Sports Illustrated:
Eager to move on from the Bobby Petrino scandal, Arkansas announced Monday that popular former assistant John L. Smith will return as head coach of the Razorbacks next season.
Smith, who left the Razorbacks after last season to become the head coach at Weber State, will be formally introduced on Tuesday. The school said Smith signed a 10-month, $850,000 contract and will also be eligible for other incentives.
"I am tremendously excited to have this special opportunity to return to Arkansas and lead the Razorback football program," Smith said in a statement.
This one has raised more than a few eyebrows. If the hiring of Nick Saban is widely considered a home run, the consensus opinion here is that this is a pop-up behind home plate.
Most will remember Smith mainly from his tenures at Louisville and Michigan State in the early-to-mid 2000's. After nearly a decade at Idaho and Utah State, Smith caught on at Louisville in 1998 and had a handful of decent seasons in Conference USA. That success landed him the Michigan State job, where he took over for current Alabama assistant Bobby Williams (another small world note, Bobby Petrino took over for Smith at Louisville), but after a surprisingly strong 8-5 campaign in his debut season, Smith quickly fizzled in East Lansing. The next three years all produced losing seasons and he was ultimately fired at the end of the 2006 season. Most recently, Smith was the head coach at Weber State, his alma mater.
Smith's biggest selling points for Arkansas are that he has significant head coaching experience, that he spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons as an assistant in Fayetteville, and that he has a good relationship with many players on the current roster. Given the foregoing, there is some hope for a relatively smooth short-term transition, which is likely what the Arkansas administration is hoping for by naming him interim head coach.
Not surprisingly, though, this is a surprising decision and one that has inflamed a sizable portion of the Arkansas fan base. In a year in which, prior to the exposure of the Petrino scandal, many Hog fans thought they had a legitimate chance at an SEC championship and perhaps an outside shot at a national championship, waking up one late April morning to find John L. Smith as the head football coach was never the stuff of dreams. The past three weeks have largely been a nightmare in Fayetteville, and for most part the hiring of Smith will not do anything to change that.
Of course, the easy inclination here is to assume that if the administration were going to appoint an interim head coach before conducting a full-scale head coaching search later this year, they would have been best served by promoting a member of the existing staff. Admittedly, however, that line of thinking is largely misplaced because there is arguably no one currently on the staff who could adequately perform the job. Taver Johnson, who had been named interim coach after Petrino was placed on administrative leave, has never held a coordinator title at a BCS conference school, and in any event he has only been in Fayetteville for three months. Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes is also new to the staff, and promoting offensive coordinator Paul Petrino would have been difficult given the ugly departure of his brother. Accordingly, it can be reasonably argued that Long had no other choice but to go outside the current staff even for the interim hire.
Additionally, given the outrage in the fan base and the fact that Smith will turn 64 later this November, the likelihood of him cajoling a successful season this fall into a permanent position in Fayetteville seems relatively low. Unless Smith can reel off eleven or twelve wins in 2012, which is highly unlikely, it seems relatively certain that he will be viewed as a short-term stop-gap, not a long-term solution. That alone has to be considered a positive here, simply because the worst-case scenario with an interim head coach is that he has some short-term success which results in a school hiring as a head coach a person who would have otherwise never even been considered for the job.
Now, being brutally honest, there is nothing whatsoever in Smith's background that indicates he can successfully lead a program against the best that the SEC has to offer -- for that matter, he could not do that against the Big Ten, either, in what ostensibly should have been the prime of his coaching career -- and it is highly unlikely that he will do so given such difficult circumstances this season in Fayetteville. Cardinal Kool-Aid notwithstanding, Arkansas was likely going to be a step behind Alabama and LSU even before the Petrino debacle, and in the wake of his termination they could encounter significant difficulties fending off Auburn for the third spot in the SEC West.
Of course, it's impossible to hire a quality head coach this late in the year, and the only real hope of a viable long-term solution was to postpone the search until later this fall. Not having an acceptable short-term promotional candidate on the existing staff only made the situation more difficult. Is this a good move in absolute terms? Absolutely not. In relative terms, though, given the poor circumstances, bringing someone in with both extensive head coaching experience and familiarity with the coaching staff and the roster was likely as good of an end result as could have been realistically expected.
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