John L. Smith is the Anti-Petrino
By Matt Smith
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John L. Smith is the anti-Petrino: Praised as a human being, but criticized as a head coach.
Before Bobby Petrino turned Louisville into a BCS bowl winner, it was John L. Smith who had resurrected the Cardinals from 1-10 to 11-2 in just four seasons. Now, a decade after Petrino put the finishing touches on Smith’s rebuilding project after the latter left for Michigan State, the roles are reversed at Arkansas.
Two weeks following Petrino’s dismissal from Arkansas after a motorcycle accident exposed a scandal involving an extramarital affair with a university employee, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long has named the 63-year old Smith to lead the Razorbacks in the 2012 season. The label “interim” was not used, but Smith was given just a 10-month contract. A full coaching search is expected to occur after the season. Smith had been Arkansas’ special teams coordinator from 2009-2011, but had left in December to take the head coaching position at his alma mater, Weber State.
Smith was previously a head coach from 1989-2006. He spent six seasons at Idaho and three at Utah State, taking the latter to its first bowl game in its history in 1997. Downtrodden Louisville then came calling, and Smith went 41-21 in five years there. His biggest win came in a nationally televised Thursday night affair with No. 4 Florida State, a game that the Cardinals won in overtime.
After two successful rebuilding projects, Michigan State hired Smith to take over for Bobby Williams. His first season ended in the Alamo Bowl, but the Spartans then regressed, winning just 14 games in the next three seasons. Smith’s most memorable moments in East Lansing came in the form of meltdowns.
A 2005 rant in an interview with ABC Sports’ Jack Arute after the first half of a game at Ohio State became an internet sensation. The Spartans went 1-5 following the rant, including losing to the Buckeyes. A year later, a 3-0 Spartans team had No. 12 Notre Dame on the ropes with a 37-21 lead in the fourth quarter, but allowed 19 unanswered points to the Irish in a rainstorm at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans finished 4-8, and Smith was fired.
Smith’s Michigan State teams perennially wilted late in the season. In 2003, a 7-1 start turned into an 8-5 finish. In 2005, 4-0 became 5-6. In 2006, 3-0 spiraled into 4-8. Even wins showed the flakiness of the mid-decade Spartans. Smith’s final victory at MSU was a 41-38 comeback win at Northwestern in which his team trailed 38-3.
Long’s hire of Smith is meant to provide familiarity for the players, and allow the current assistants to maintain their roles. If there was one person who both knew the inner workings of the Razorbacks program and would not have to relinquish a position coach title, it was Smith.
Smith isn’t the first coach to fail at a big-time job after succeeding elsewhere. Many coaches have won at smaller programs and then been similarly overwhelmed once they reached the big stage. Dennis Franchione built New Mexico and TCU into winners (and started well at Alabama before bolting), but flopped at Texas A&M. The late Larry Smith developed strong programs at Arizona and Missouri in between a mediocre stint at mighty USC where he went just 17-17-2 in his final three seasons.
The hire is sure to go over well in the Arkansas locker room. Smith is, by all accounts, loved by his players. In a sense, he’s the anti-Petrino: praised as a human being, but criticized as a head coach. However, it will take more than just his players’ love to win in the SEC.
Nick Saban and Alabama come to Fayetteville in Week 3. Fellow national title winners Gene Chizik, Les Miles, and Steve Spurrier are also on the schedule. The Razorbacks were rarely at a coaching disadvantage with Petrino’s great play-calling mind. Now, it appears that that may be the norm rather than the exception.
In Long’s defense, his hands were tied in the matter. Petrino put him in an impossible situation. Promoting an assistant coach would risk friction within the staff, and none have been FBS head coaches before. Hiring an outside head coach in late April would be nearly impossible. With the current staff retained, Smith can function as a CEO. Given his tenure at Michigan State, that’s probably a good thing for Arkansas.
I have never envied John L. Smith. Perhaps, that is because his name might be the only one more common than my own. However, the lack of envy is even greater now. Smith will either be perceived to have won with Petrino’s players, or have ruined a potential national title contender. Either way, he is unlikely to be the head coach at Arkansas in 2013.
What may seem like a bad hire was in reality the only hire. Long also gave himself an easy out by giving Smith only a 10-month contract. Although Smith is getting a chance that he probably doesn’t deserve after the disaster in East Lansing, the hire should steady the locker room. Is that enough to win the SEC West? Probably not, but Petrino took those dreams off the same edge as he did his motorcycle three weeks ago.