Twenty three days ago, a 53-year-old, almost comically brazen head football coach and his 25-year-old paramour drove a Harley and a proud football program into a ditch. (Really? A helmetless bike ride in Northwest Arkansas in broad daylight with a leggy blonde you just hired to work directly, *ahem* under you?)
Ten days later, a remarkably underestimated athletic director served notice that he doesn’t suffer Fools gladly, even those of the BCS Bowl-reaching variety.
And, finally, today, the worst April Fool’s Joke in College Football History will come to an end of sorts when Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long steps to the podium at a 2 p.m. press conference and introduces John L. Smith as the interim Head Football Coach at the University of Arkansas.
By now you know the sordid details of how former Arkansas head football coach Bobby Petrino managed to dump himself, Jessica Dorrell and the national Top 5 program that he (re)built in the same place that the latter was left by his predecessor.
So why rehash them? Instead, let’s talk about the immediate future.
First, for those who don’t know Smith, where have you been? He is hardly an unknown commodity. Smith has long been a mentor to the Brothers Petrino and most recently, was an assistant coach for under Bobby Petrino at Arkansas for the last 3 seasons. (He left 4 months ago to take the head coaching position at his alma mater, Weber State, only to return without coaching a game.)
Before coming to Fayetteville, Smith logged 19 up-and-down years of head coaching experience at Idaho, Utah State, Louisville and Michigan State.
A quote machine (he won’t “win” today’s press conference, he will kill it) who has been known to liken kickoff returns to epic battles over large chunks of land, Smith is known primarily for his Special Teams prowess, but is also unique in that he is a bit of an off-field, gridiron Hemingway.
Smith is eccentric, to say the least. He was plowing through his bucket list before it was cool, and has checked off the climbing of Mount Kilimanjaro, running with the bulls in the streets of Pamplona, and skydiving from 14,000 feet.
But can he talk distraught Hog fans off of the ledge in the wake of the Petrino firing and mark another experience (winning a national championship) off of his list?
Only time will tell. But, his middling previous results notwithstanding, the hiring of Smith makes sense given Arkansas’ unprecedented circumstances.
(Just don’t tell Weber St. or ESP*I*N columnist Gene Wojciechowski that. BlogHawgs reader Jeremy Cox made a good point on the BlogHawgs Facebook page. Wojo is pretty pithy for a guy who worked at 3 newspapers, all for less than a year, none of which bumped his pay grade from $130,000 to nearly $1 million….but I am sure he gave them plenty–2 weeks?–of notice).
While Smith’s common name and W/L record aren’t the splashy combo that the most optimistic of Razorback fans were pining for, he is probably the best-equipped coach in America to keep Hog football from taking a dive in 2012.
That’s because he is the one coach in America who can do all of the following:
–Provide vast head coaching experience;
–Maintain almost complete staff continuity (he has worked with all but one of the assistants);
–Minimize potential staff back-biting and angling for the job;
–Bring ready knowledge of the roster;
–Excite the players and recruits; and
–Accept the job on a 10-month, (albeit financially handsome, as compared to his Weber St. salary) interim basis.
That is not to predict that Smith WILL do all of these things, just that he CAN. Smith could easily revisit some of his head-coaching demons and cough up a game or two that he could have won.
Or, he could let his coaches coach and his players play and be the father figure(head) the program needs in the short-term.
In the meantime, Long will be able to bank almost $3 million in budgeted, but saved, head coach’s salary, and get a year-long head start on his next coaching search and hiring war chest
And the players? They get their lives back.
Ask All-SEC running back and Heisman hopeful Knile Davis. He called the hiring of Smith “the happiest day of his life.”
Maybe the uber-talented, oft-injured jewel that is Knile is an emotionally wrung out young man who is vulnerable to overstatement during these rocky times in Fayetteville.
But, can you blame him? If this saga was on the big screen, I would walk out in protest of its absurdity. Temporary suspension of disbelief can only last so long.
Nevertheless, I agree with Knile in principle (but maybe not in degree)– today is a good day–probably not the best day of my life (OK, definitely not), but a good day, nonetheless.
That’s because the Hogs have a loaded roster (unanimous preseason Top 10 to be sure), an intact coaching staff, a singular focus and a new/old leader who knows the landscape and has the potential to lead the Hogs to the promised land.
If you don’t believe me, you also probably think Chizik is a cheese cracker and “Dear John” letters always end in sorrow.
To the contrary, sometimes, breaking up is the right thing to do and is not just a backside-saving measure. That’s why, whether this blows up in Long’s face or not, I applaud the firing of Petrino and the decision to give the team a puncher’s chance in 2012.
And, while John L. Smith probably isn’t “Mr. Right” for the U of A in the long-term, he is a pretty good “Mr. Right Now” that Arkansas fans can trust to do right by them for the next 10 months. To exchange one strained sports analogy (the one about a home run hire) for another, he’s a decent, two-handed rebound in traffic.
No one knows what will happen, but one would have to think Arkansas’ fans are due for some good fortune.
Razorback Nation can only hope that things will mesh perfectly, and an old coach, who has traveled this road before, can keep himself and the Arkansas program upright and steer us all safely through a beautiful,
Sunday Monday evening ride all the way from the Ozarks to South Beach.