|Smith has 10 months to prove he's worthy of having his interim tag removed at Arkansas. (US Presswire)|
See them all: Dodd's 2012 Hot Seat Ratings
There certainly are more secure coaching jobs in the country. Take, like, all of them. John L. Smith knows this. He embraces it. He loves it. The man knowingly and gladly put himself in the position of being one-and-done at Arkansas.
"You get to a point in your career where you say, 'How many chances are you going to get?' said Arkansas' head coach-for-now."You worked your whole life to get one chance. Maybe this will be that chance. Maybe this will be that special season."
Maybe. What the hell, roll the dice -- who knows? -- then perhaps he rolls the Tide. The only thing for sure is that John L. Smith, 63 and in the winter of his career, has 10 months on his contract and a salary promise of $850,000 to prove he deserves the full-time job at Arkansas.
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The mandate: Win or else after the Bobby Petrino scandal. That puts Smith in the most risky/wonderful/tenuous/enviable positions ever in the long history of the annual Coaches' Hot Seat Ratings. You land on the hot seat by losing. But Smith hasn't at Arkansas, and at all since his last head coaching job at Michigan State in 2006.
An Idaho native, by way of Weber State, after being hired in a pinch is being asked not to screw up perhaps the best Arkansas team in 35 years.
Technically, his title is "interim." Kind of goes along with the history of Arkansas football. Nothing, it seems, has been permanent. Since its entry into the SEC 20 years ago, Arkansas has been mostly a middle-of-the-two-lane program. For every Darren McFadden there has been a Houston Nutt scandal. For every Ryan Mallett, there has been a Petrino scandal.
Anyone noticing a pattern here? Up and down. Since 1992, the program has produced three 10-win seasons, three division titles and no SEC championships. Had Petrino kept his kickstand down, the expectations would have been in the clouds.
They still are, really. The last two of those 10-win seasons have come in 2010 and 2011. The offense is the best in the SEC. Petrino led the Hogs to consecutive berths in the Sugar and Cotton Bowls. But at one of the biggest crossroads in Arkansas' history, John L. finds himself having to bail out the Hogs. Bobby Petrino shamed himself and the program after the April 1 motorcycle crash. Slightly more than three weeks later Smith was being announced as the program's 32nd head coach.
At least for a while. Forty years of coaching experience, including four different head coaching stops has to count for something. The magic number for Smith? Probably 10 victories and a win over Alabama or LSU, both of whom come to Fayetteville this season. Even then, there are sure to be sexier, younger, more accomplished candidates available at the end of 2012.
"The way we've approached it is, we're no different than any other coach in the country," Smith said. "If they want you out, they're going to kick you out the door if you don't win enough games. You're going to be gone."
He and Tennessee's Derek Dooley are the only "5s" on this year's Hot Seat list. That's the worst you can be and still be employed on the 0-5 scale. "On the hot seat -- it's time to win now," reads the designation. The last four coaches to earn the dreaded "5" have been fired.
The point shouldn't be lost that both Smith and Dooley have chosen this life. They work in the SEC where patience is merely a word on Page 1,055 of Webster's New World Dictionary. But there are stark differences in their situations. Dooley is still trying to prove himself while still cleaning up after Lane Kiffin. Smith is cleaning up after that broken motorcycle on the side of Arkansas Highway 16.
While Dooley's best asset may be his last name, Smith is a scrapper. No matter what you think of his Michigan State rant, that's him in all his ignominy. But his real personality is more like that of a fan than a millionaire coach.
For Arkansas' immediate needs, he is both competent and familiar, a former head coach who just seven months ago was Petrino's special teams coach. His friend-of-the-program status made him the perfect stopgap when Petrino was fired. Except that Smith doesn't see himself that way.
"In our mind, in our belief it's going to be more than one year," he said. "That's the way we have to make it. That's the way the coaches, football team and players have to make it. How often do you get opportunities in life? If you get an opportunity to run with the bulls you're going to do it?"
Running with the bulls is actually the perfect metaphor. Smith has made an offseason habit of WTF adventures in his coaching career. He has been chased by those beasts in Pamplona, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and jumped out of an airplane. The difference this fall in Fayetteville is that he doesn't have a parachute.
"It's like my wife says: 'It's kind of like another adventure for you. Let's get going.'" Smith said.
Or, as Smith has called the experience, Running With The Hogs.
AD Jeff Long was in a box two months ago after Petrino lied himself out of a job. There were no proven head coaches who would: a.) leave their jobs at that point or b.) were clean enough. Hiring Arkansas alum and deposed North Carolina coach Butch Davis would have meant merely inviting a different kind of stink to the program.
Elevating an assistant from the staff would have sent a clear message to recruits: This guy is a stopgap. Smith's decision to leave for his alma mater at Weber State late last year actually made him the perfect candidate. At Arkansas he is a proven head coach (132-86 in his career including Big Ten coach of the year honors at Michigan State) who is the most experienced temp you're going to find.
Now the hard part. Settling into the office of his friend, former assistant and former boss. Smith gave Petrino his first job at Idaho in 1989. They had been together for 10 total seasons at four different schools.
"You always love and will continue to love, that's the way it is," Smith said of Petrino. "You're hurt, he's hurt. He's got his personal life he's got to work through."
Other than that, open the hatch, strap on a parachute and jump. The way Smith sees it, the only contrast between him and every other coach on the Hot Seat list: They have bigger buyouts.
"What is the difference here between me being on a 10-month contract and any other coach in the country? Nothing," Smith said. "Any coach in the country, if they want to get rid of you they're going to get rid of you. We have to produce this year, period."