Count this columnist among those who was rather nonplussed about the University of Arkansas announcing that it had wrested John L. Smith away from his sabbatical in Utah. But do not misinterpret my reaction as a lack of enthusiasm.
Rather, I believed from the moment Bobby Petrino was dismissed that Smith would have probably been elevated to temporary custodian of Hog football without a minute’s hesitation had he not left for Weber State back in December. The 2011 Razorback staff boasted exactly two men with collegiate head coaching experience, namely Petrino and Smith. The latter was a few years removed from a nondescript four-year run at East Lansing, Michigan, where he was best remembered for an amusing outburst on national television at halftime of a game against Ohio State. But for all the jabs at Smith, they belied the fact that for the better part of two decades, he was a successful head coach at multiple locales, and fondly regarded by his players.
This move by athletic director Jeff Long is going to be met with predictable cynicism by those who believe that a.) he should have chloroformed Jon Gruden and stuffed him into the back end of that magic Escalade that delivers instant riches and glory to anyone who desires it, or b.) Petrino himself should have been shuttled off to some sort of accelerated rehab in order to return to his post. Indeed, Smith represents the very definition of “safe hire”: a 63-year-old man who was all set to end his coaching career by guiding his alma mater for a few seasons, presumably to ease into retirement and anonymity without fuss. Hell, the man’s name is inherently mundane and common.
Characterizing the move this way does Smith a grave injustice. For all the harsh words that will be directed toward him for his failings at Michigan State, his struggles there were hardly unique. His immediate predecessor, Bobby Williams, won only six conference games in three seasons, and even Nick Saban was largely a .500 coach there until his last season (1999). George Perles coached 12 seasons and ended up one game over .500.
Perhaps the better gauge of Smith’s capabilities can be found in his stint at Louisville from 1998 to 2002. Prior to Smith’s arrival, Ron Cooper had guided the Cardinals to a miserable 1-10 season. Howard Schnellenberger, the architect of “The U,” could only muster a 54-56-2 mark in a decade-long run before Cooper. Smith led the Cardinals to an average of eight wins per year, a bowl bid every season, which made him the Spartans’ choice to succeed Williams and ultimately left Louisville in Petrino’s very capable hands.
Smith is also, naturally, a fresh target for national media members who love nothing more than to besmirch a man for leaving one job to take another, even if Smith’s connection to Arkansas has been so well forged enough that current players have tweeted their undying support for this alleged Band-Aid hire. Those who trumpet loyalty to the new employer and cull quotations from Smith’s press conference at Weber four months ago have never been faced with the chance to quadruple their salary on a 10-month contract, and should therefore cease and desist with the proselytizing.
This is the proper fix for now, even if it leaves unresolved all the familiar questions about how to salvage recruiting for 2013 and beyond. If Smith is successful in this managerial role, the issue will likely settle itself. Paul Petrino and Paul Haynes will continue to oversee the offense and defense, respectively, and in so doing will both have the opportunity to essentially audition for longer-term employment with higher pay. It’s easy to forget that this will be the first sustained play-calling experience for both Pauls, and neither would have been ideal if elevated to head coach now. It’s similarly easy to forget that Long’s savvy in inking Smith to this patchwork contract is twofold: It keeps future coaching options after 2012 well in play, and reserves significant dollars in the Foundation for the next coaching contract, as Smith’s salary will be more or less on par with what Gus Malzahn will make at Arkansas State this year.
Finding fault with this arrangement is easy only because of its utter lack of pizzazz. But thus is the ripple effect of one man’s April joyride. The Razorbacks of 2012 will be one of the country’s more intriguing stories due to the tumult, but it now falls on Smith to alter the narrative by not altering the landscape at all. His charge is to maintain what Petrino built, then cede the caretaker role when a suitable permanent replacement becomes known and available. Fans will react or overreact accordingly, but optimism for the coming season should not ebb.