John L. Smith, The Most Arkansas Hire In So Many Ways

New Arkansas football coach John L. Smith. Walt Beazley, Arkansas Media Relations.

For better and worse, Arkansas really couldn't have hired anybody besides John L. Smith as its next mercenary head coach. SI.com: Arkansas' fascinating hire.

"Are you going to kiss me?" is how Bobby Petrino says Jessica Dorrell began their affair. It was all her idea, he claimed. Mike Slive made a point of saying Missouri and Texas A&M propositioned the SEC, and not the other way around. Nick Saban has been known to offer scholarships to recruits on the condition that the offer is preemptively accepted somehow.

So of course Arkansas' official release on new interim-ish head coach John L. Smith insists that the whole thing was Smith's idea -- and not athletic director Jeff Long's. Everything in the SEC has its own severe gravity, absorbing all sorts of stuff, and it can't help it if a home or two ends up wrecked. Leaving his post as Weber State head coach nine days after spring practice ended and only four months on the job? It was all Smith's idea.

In that way and so many others, this is the quintessential Arkansas Razorbacks interim coaching hire. Consider the following.


Related: John L. Smith coverage and Bobby Petrino coverage.

John L. Smith is an unusual man.

I say that as a compliment, of course. The former Michigan State and Louisville coach best known for slapping himself in the face, ranting at halftime about his own coaches, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, learning how to fly a jet and pulling off the biggest comeback in college football history a week before losing to yet another poor Indiana team is one of the sport's great characters.

Arkansas fans, meanwhile, would rank among the three zestiest fan bases in the SEC no matter who you polled, and that's saying something. It should be considered a badge of honor, and so long as Smith speaks the language of the FOIA, he can fit in just fine.

And John L. Smith has a lot in common with Bobby Petrino.

Petrino has worked seven years on Smith's staffs at Idaho, Utah State and Louisville. Smith then worked three years for Petrino at Arkansas. Petrino is as faithful to John L. Smith as he is to just about anything. Petrino once interviewed for former boss Tommy Tuberville's Auburn job before Tuberville had even been fired, so it means a lot that he's been tied to Smith for so long.

One rode motorcycles with volleyball players, the other ran with the bulls in Pamplona. Consider that Smith is known as a spread offense innovator, while Petrino has stamped his own "power spread" variant, and this could be the most seamless interim hire ever. (Other than Smith being a rah-rah jokester beloved by his players instead of a sneering grouch.)

So, of course Petrino approves of the hire.

In fact, John L. Smith is the maybe-less-sleazy Bobby Petrino.

Bobby Petrino left Louisville for the NFL six months after signing a 10-year contract. John L. Smith left Louisville after his players found out from fans at halftime of the 2002 GMAC Bowl that he'd taken the Michigan State job. I really don't know which is worse.

And, again, Smith just left his alma mater looking for a coach in April after four months of national championship talk and some stuff about loyalty being important.

Not to player-hate, as Smith will be getting more than a half-million-dollar raise, and not to impose a value judgment on what it means to coach at one's own alma mater, but Smith himself made sure to talk up what Weber State meant to him back when he was hired:

I've always had a place in my heart for Weber State. You do that naturally. That's your school, that's where you graduated from, so that fondness, that love is always with you. And again, to come back to run your own program as a head coach again is crucial for me.

Long, who came out of the Petrino scandal looking like a man so principled it's hard to believe he ever hired the guy in the first place, didn't have an easy choice here. He did make the best move for his program, as far as winning games this season goes. Yanking former offensive coordinator Garrick McGee back from UAB would've harmed even more people, even if it wouldn't have cut them quite as deeply.

But nobody saw this coming, as is Arkansas custom.

Long should be hired by China's Ministry of State Security. Nobody knew he was going to fire Petrino until an hour before that press conference, even though we all should have seen it coming. Nobody knew he was going to hire Petrino in the first place, and we might never figure out how he managed to sneak that past Arthur Blank, who'd seen his biggest personnel investment hauled off to prison the day prior for fighting dogs. With Flowery Branch at maximum lockdown, Arkansas somehow still swindled the Falcons' head coach. After firing Petrino, Long was able to make the most of all those FOIA requests, happily sharing documents that made his decision look wiser and wiser.

This one might top it all. It's almost like Long started plotting in December and stashed Smith way out there in Ogden, Utah just so nobody would realize what an obvious choice he was for the interim job.

Funny thing there, too, since how strange does it feel to say a 63-year-old failed Big Ten coach from last decade makes sense as the coach of a SEC favorite? The party line is that Smith has head coaching experience and can keep the staff intact (it's actually in his contract that he do so), freeing up Paul Petrino and Paul Haynes to coordinate. It's obvious, but somehow still feels sneaky-brilliant.

One could note Smith has had a .600 career winning percentage without Bobby Petrino on his staff and a .744 mark with him, so maybe Smith isn't all that good on his own. One could also note Smith will still have a Petrino running his Arkansas offense.

Most importantly: the circus never ends.

Smith is a 10-month hire. Not only does this mean we're guaranteed another Arkansas coaching search after the season, it means one has already begun. It never really ended. Of course it didn't. Now, with a one-year buffer, there's nothing awkward about having McGee or Gus Malzahn leave their programs on short notice, so all bets are back on.

As George Schroeder wrote at SI.com before Smith was hired:

No one who knows the Razorbacks should have been surprised. When it comes to Arkansas football, the steady state is chaos.

Arkansas the program has found a way to replace its despicable coach with a more palatable version while making the new guy look like more of the same, and Arkansas the fan base still has a whole 'nother coaching search to get through. How did nobody see this coming?

For more on Hogs football, visit Arkansas blog Arkansas Expats, plus SEC blog Team Speed Kills.

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