John L. Smith figures to leave Arkansas riding the same overflowing emotion that carried him back to the state.
The likely farewell tour for the interim coach began in earnest Monday, with Smith left fighting back tears while discussing his coaching future, the Razorbacks' season-finale against LSU, and the difficult season that has left Arkansas (4-7, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) outside of the bowl picture for the first time since 2008.
Smith, who was hired in April to replace the fired Bobby Petrino, is hoping to keep coaching after this season — wherever that might be.
The former Michigan State and Louisville coach also acknowledged the possibility that he won't be back with the Razorbacks, a likely scenario as athletic director Jeff Long continues his search for a permanent coach.
"Boy, I'd sure like to go out with a win," Smith said of Friday's game with the No. 8 Tigers (9-2, 5-2).
Smith was lauded by Arkansas' players for his personable ways when he took over for Petrino, and he was nearly overcome with emotion several times Monday.
The 64-year-old Smith, who is dealing with his personal $40.7 million bankruptcy case and the death of his younger brother during the losing season, said he hasn't talked directly with Long about his future. Long said last month that Smith was still a candidate for the full-time job, adding that it would be apparent at the end of the season whether Smith was his choice.
"It has not worked like I would have liked to come back and give them, so I'm a little bit regretful in the fact I would have like to give them more wins, if you can give that," Smith said. "But you try to give what you can and do all you can and prepare them the best you can. And hopefully we've been a positive, positive influence on their lives. That's the best you can do, I guess."
Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson was in the room for Monday's news conference, waiting his turn to speak, and he watched as Smith's eyes filled with tears. Wilson said the heightened emotions and reflection were the result of the Razorbacks' latest loss, a 45-14 setback to Mississippi State that ended any hopes of a fourth straight bowl game.
"I think it's emotional for all of us," Wilson said.
The senior also admitted the last six months "have been tough," but he praised Smith for helping keep the team together.
"He's always got a smile," Wilson said. "Whether he's feeling it deep down in there or not, it's the way he expresses himself. And, you know, it touches everybody."
The Razorbacks were 21-5 the last two seasons under Petrino and had hopes of competing for SEC and national championships this season. Those hopes, however, crashed in the wake of Petrino's April 1 motorcycle accident — an accident that led to revelations of Petrino's extramarital affair, and that he had hired his mistress to work in the athletic department.
Smith, who had been an Arkansas assistant under Petrino the last three seasons, was signed to a 10-month contract by Long after a brief stint as head coach at his alma mater, Weber State. Smith said he expects to be "over-emotional" this week, both before, during and after Friday's game.
"I'm very thankful for this," Smith said. "I'm thankful for having the opportunity to come back. I'm thankful that these guys thought enough of me to say, to say 'that's a guy we'd like back.'"
Smith did his best to hold his emotions in check while answering his final question on Monday. He was asked about fans' support for Friday's game, and his answer quickly turned into an outpouring of thankfulness — and apologies — before quickly leaving the stage to conceal his tears.
"We're sorry again we couldn't have maybe done more," Smith said. "... Our fans have been the best place I've ever been. If I get one bad email, I get 100 good ones, in saying thank you. So, please come and say thanks to those players."