It turns out Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long has slapped together the coaching plan no one saw coming.
Former Michigan State head coach John L. Smith has been hired at Arkansas as a one-year interim coach, CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd has confirmed, operating on a 10-month contract. The school announced late Monday afternoon that the contract is valued at $850,000.
Smith will be formally introduced at a press conference scheduled for 2 p.m. CT Tuesday.
"I am extremely pleased to welcome Coach John L. Smith back to the Razorback program as our new head football coach," Long said in a statement. "When Coach Smith first approached me about returning to Arkansas to serve in this position, he talked about his desire to be a part of the continued success of these student-athletes, this coaching staff and the Razorback program ... I have a tremendous amount of confidence in our assistant coaches and believe that under Coach Smith's leadership they will be able to continue to flourish in their current roles."
Assuming the contract begins immediately, Smith has a contract to coach the Hogs through the end of February 2013. That would carry him through the 2013 recruiting season. There hasn't been word from Arkansas on whether the former Bobby Petrino assistant would be considered for the permanent job, but obviously a favorable 2012 season would help his chances.
The 63-year-old had been head coach at Weber State, his alma mater, but left without coaching a game after having been hired in December. It's up to the court of public opinion to decide whether that's better than Petrino bailing on the Atlanta Falcons with three games to go in 2007.
"I am tremendously excited to have this special opportunity to return to Arkansas and lead the Razorback football program," Smith said. "While at Arkansas, we worked to make the Razorbacks a top five team and much of the credit for that goes to the student-athletes. Throughout the spring, the assistant coaches and student-athletes have shown incredible focus and character, which we will use to build on as we work to achieve our goals for 2012."
Though Smith's failures in East Lansing might have made him a less-than-thrilling permanent choice, it's easy to understand Long's motivation in naming him as an interim coach. His familiarity with the program (in addition to helping to recruit and coach nearly the entire Razorback roster, Smith has worked alongside eight of the program's nine current assistants) will allow Arkansas to keep both its current staff intact and its players on the same Petrino-inspired page.
Per Arkansas Sports 360, Smith agreed to a clause in his contract which prohibits him from making any staff changes within the football program and places "sole authority to approve all personnel actions" with Long.
The decision also allows Long to avoid the potentially tricky choice of which of several qualified assistants (including spring practice acting coach Taver Johnson, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, and running backs coach Tim Horton) would be promoted to the job. A source who spoke to the Associated Press said that Smith's ability to "unite" the staff was a major factor in his hire.
Star Arkansas running back Knile Davis tweeted his approval of Long's decision:
So did former Razorback quarterback Ryan Mallett:
The happiest day of my life... hearing that John L.Smith is coming back to the ville to b our head coach...#priceless— Knile Davis (boobie) (@Boobie_Knile) April 23, 2012
In a statement released late Monday, fired predecessor Bobby Petrino called Smith a "great hire."
John is a great guy and great coach. I love it @jefflongUA— Ryan Mallett (@Ryan_Mallett_15) April 23, 2012
“While there were several outstanding internal candidates, John L. brings a lot of head coaching experience to the table that will help Arkansas transition,” Petrino said. “He will unify the staff, the team and the Razorback fan base.”
Smith has 12 seasons of FBS head coaching experience, going 16-18 in three seasons at Utah State from 1995-1997; 41-21 in five seasons at Louisville from 1998-2002; and 22-26 in four seasons at Michigan State. His hasty exit from Weber State won't be his first awkward departure from a previous head coaching gig, as in 2002 his Cardinals found out he would be leaving for MSU during halftime of a GMAC Bowl loss to Marshall.
Among other candidates rumored for the position were UAB head coach Garrick McGee, offensive coordinator for two seasons under Petrino, and former Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer.
But Dodd also reported Saturday that Long's preference was to keep as much of the current Razorback staff together as possible, indicating that an interim coach was likely.
Smith will temporarily replace old boss Petrino, fired by Long April 10 after covering up both the details of a motorcycle accident involving former mistress Jessica Dorrell and her hire as an Arkansas staff member only days prior to the accident.
Long was widely praised for the decision, with the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation and its board president donating $1.25 million to the school in honor of Long's "courageous decision." He will likely earn another round of praise for the secrecy in which his search was conducted, with Smith near-completely off the radar until Monday afternoon.
Anyone paying attention to the Twitter feed of Weber State A.D. Jerry Bovee early Monday morning, however, might not have been quite as shocked:
Wow, just when you think the pieces to the puzzle are all in place, something big happens to create chaos and the picture changes. Ouch!— Jerry Bovee (@JerryBovee) April 23, 2012