Enter John L. Smith at Arkansas: Sometimes boring is better -- for a year
If you're upset that John L. Smith wasn't a home-run hire, consider there wasn't a home-run hire available.
What you’ve got to do is let your mind wander to seven months from now. Arkansas’ regular season will be all but over. Whether the Hogs are in contention for the SEC West under John L. Smith really isn’t the issue right now. The bigger story is that AD Jeff Long will have options.
Good options. Pie-in-the-sky options. Fallback options. All kinds of options. Long can spend the next seven or so months hiring a real coach.
If Arkansas’ AD wanted to draw as little attention as possible, he succeeded in hiring Smith as a one-year interim. John L. won’t necessarily cause donors to write six-figure checks or sell any more season tickets. The money and interest is there.
Arkansas doesn’t need a Danica Patrick trading paint. It needs a Greyhound driver keeping it between the lines. Arkansas doesn’t need a lightning rod at this point, it needs continuity.
We all know what’s at stake. This could be Arkansas’ best team in 35 years. For the moment, today, Long didn’t screw it up because he is staking his job that Smith won’t screw it up.
Nothing against John L. Yes, he’s 63 and somewhat of a retread. But at this point in Arkansas’ history, maybe low key is good. A BCS bowl for Smith would be his first as a head coach. But Petrino just led Arkansas to its first BCS bowl in 25 years. This is still Arkansas.
Football remains hairline fractured, not fully broken. This remains about making the best of a really crappy situation. By keeping the team and the staff on message with a familiar face for this one season, well, there are worse things to be called than caretaker.
Someone please tell me that Garrick McGee or Gus Malzahn or even Phil Fulmer would absolutely have been better. The first two guys have never been head coaches. For better or worse, Fulmer is from outside the friendly confines of Arkansas. Basically, a push when you put him up against Smith at this point in their careers.
Smith knows the territory. It is a territory where his former boss Bobby Petrino went 2-6 against LSU and Alabama, the two powerhouses that come to Fayetteville this season. The Hogs are probably going to have to beat at least one, maybe both, to win the SEC West. Petrino might not have done that.
This is still Arkansas.
Smith could conquer those powerhouses, with a future NFL quarterback (Tyler Wilson), a Heisman candidate tailback (Knile Davis) and a defense that if it improves just a little bit could be the difference.
Even if Smith doesn't deliver against the Tigers and Tide, this is about the long-term, something that Petrino couldn’t have promised even if he never took out his Harley that April Fool’s Sunday. In that sense, Smith is a hell of a bridge to the next guy. Yeah, he was caught freaking out at halftime of a Michigan State game. He may be known better for offseason endeavors such as skydiving or running with the bulls in Pamplona. I’ll take that passion for 10 months.
There essentially were no home run hires for Arkansas at the moment. Not permanent hires. Not realistically. McGee and Malzahn need to go somewhere and succeed before taking over an SEC program. Jimmy Johnson wasn’t/isn’t coming. Steve Mariucci? Jon Gruden? Every time I see one of those guys mentioned, the immediate thought is: Products of aggressive marketing tactics by their agents. It has been a combined 63 years since JJ, Mooch or Coach Quarterback last coached a college team.
If Smith’s hiring riles you -- dear Hog Fan -- try fantasizing about what accomplished, eager coaches will be available in late November. Arkansas already has shown it will pay top dollar. (Petrino made $3.5 million per year.)
Sure, there is the risk that recruiting will suffer with an interim. But this isn't Vanderbilt. There will be enough kids committing because they want to be Hogs. Plus, Long will have the permanent coach in place way before signing day.
By hiring (back) Smith, Long got as close to the Petrino influence as he could without elevating his brother, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. (And that was never happening either.) Bobby had been one of Smith’s assistants for seven seasons at three different stops. Smith then spent three seasons at Arkansas as Petrino’s special teams and outside linebackers coach.
Smith knows Arkansas. Smith knows how Petrino ran things. Before you start snickering, that refers to that continuity on the field.
There are still enough of Petrino’s smudged thumb prints on this program to make this a magic season. If Smith goes 12-1 and wins the West hand the job to him. Few of us are positive he will.
Repeating: That’s not the issue right now. All Smith has to do is what his former boss couldn’t -- keep from running a valuable property into a ditch.
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