Published November 20, 2014
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long's hiring of John L. Smith for the next 10 months provided an unconventional, and perhaps temporary, solution to a problem that came with coach Bobby Petrino's sudden and scandal-ridden exit.
Smith's return after a five-month absence from the Razorbacks also effectively signaled the program is all in for a season many expect to include a national championship run. And the Razorbacks couldn't be more relieved to have found Petrino's replacement in the form of the well-liked and outgoing Smith, who served as an assistant at the school for the past three seasons.
"I think it's going to go great," Arkansas running back Knile Davis said. "A lot of people look at it differently because they're on the outside looking in. They don't necessarily know what's going on behind these doors.
"I think it was a great decision and I'm ready to run with it, not matter what the result is, but I think it's going to be a great result."
The hiring of the 63-year-old Smith, who had left to become head coach at his alma mater, Weber State, in December, allowed Arkansas to keep together a group of assistant coaches the players had lobbied for with Long. It also allowed for the least amount of transition as possible in the post-Petrino era.
Long faced a difficult decision following Petrino's firing April 10 after the former coach had admitted to an affair with a woman he later hired as his assistant.
The timing of the coaching search was one of Long's biggest problems, with many candidates already well into spring practice with their own teams. Long also had to balance the current players' hopes for the upcoming season with the long-term interests of the program.
In the end, Long believed he found the right answer to all his concerns despite some rumblings among fans and pundits that he missed out on a "home run" hire by choosing Smith.
"Anytime there is a hire, there will be fans that question that hire. I get that," Long said. "I get that's part of being a fan. But the thing I've been hearing, they're excited. They believe in this team. They believe we have a special year in front of us. I think coach Smith will win them over time."
Several candidates told Long during the search that they would have interest following the season. While Long said he will consider Smith and any other interested Arkansas assistant after the season, he also included a clause in Smith's $875,000 contract that allows him to reassign Smith to a "non-coaching position at any time."
The clause would allow Long to hire a new head coach before the end of Smith's contract.
Right now, though, Long isn't looking quite that far ahead.
"Certainly, there will be people searching us out and seeking us out as there was prior to my decision," Long said. "I'll be receptive to those. I'll also be gathering information on my own. I've been around college athletics for 30 years and know that coaches and have those contacts. It will give me a chance to evaluate people and really look at what I think we need going forward to continue to build on the success we've had here."
Smith, for his part, said he is open to becoming a long-term solution as head coach for the Razorbacks. However, he also realizes the pressure that's on him to win right away with a team that finished last season ranked No. 5 and is 21-5 over the last two seasons.
"That's a decision that only the season is going to dictate what goes on after this," Smith said. "I think that's the way it is in the coaching profession. You better get used to that being in the coaching profession, because there's never going to be anything guaranteed down the road, as you know. You could goof it up and all the sudden you're out the door."
The coaching situation does present challenges for Arkansas, primarily in recruiting. Several assistant coaches have been on the road selling the program this week, even before Smith's announcement as head coach.
Running backs coach Tim Horton, who also serves as the program's recruiting coordinator, said he expects to receive later commitments from top high school players this year. He said those who normally commit during the summer will likely wait until the days or weeks before national signing day in February — once the Razorbacks presumably have a long-term coaching solution in place.
Horton said the school has continued to recruit in the absence of a head coach, even offering a scholarship to a player Tuesday, but his primary focus now is on the upcoming season.
"Right now, I think the obligation is to do the best we can for the 2012 version," Horton said. "The Razorbacks are going to be fine for a long, long time."