Smith relishes challenge at Arkansas
HOOVER, Ala. -- John L. Smith ran with the bulls in Pamplona (and survived). He skydived from an airplane at 14,000 feet (and lived) and climbed to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro (and then scaled back down).
So why does it feel like Smith is in so far over his head as Arkansas' interim coach?
Smith, who was last a head coach in a game at Michigan State in 2006, was a surprising choice to replace Bobby Petrino, who was fired in April after misleading Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long about the circumstances of a motorcycle accident in which Petrino's mistress was a passenger.
After an impromptu coaching search, Long settled on offering Smith a 10-month contract to coach the Razorbacks through the transition. Smith, who turns 64 in November, resigned as Weber State's coach before even guiding the FCS program (his alma mater) into a game.
"I go home in the evening and my wife and I talk a little bit from time to time," said Smith, who worked as Petrino's special-teams coordinator at Arkansas from 2009-11. "I say, 'Wow, has this been a roller coaster?' Anytime you get an opportunity to go back to your alma mater, it's one of those deals that was hard having to leave. But you weigh it out. Doors open in life; doors close in life.
"All of a sudden, a door and opportunity opened. I've never been one to stand on the outside and wait for it to close. So you better jump through it before it does close."
Smith's latest adventure is leading the Razorbacks into the rugged SEC West, which has produced college football's past three BCS national champions. Heading into the 2012 season, Alabama, LSU and Arkansas are ranked Nos. 2, 3 and 10, respectively, in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 Poll.
Like most everything else in his life, Smith has jumped headfirst into his latest challenge and expects to conquer it.
"Our football team has great expectations," Smith said. "We know what we have to do. We have one goal and that's to win in Miami and to be in the national championship game."
If the Razorbacks are going to play in the Jan. 7 Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami, they'll have to get past the Crimson Tide and Tigers. Petrino helped the Razorbacks close the gap on those heavyweights in his four seasons, going 21-5 the past two seasons alone. But Alabama and LSU still seemed head and shoulders above the Razorbacks last season, when the Hogs lost to both teams by 24 points each. The Crimson Tide defeated the Tigers 21-0 in the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans.
"If a few plays go our way, it's going to change it," Arkansas running back Knile Davis said of last season. "We're just a few plays away."
Long hopes the eccentric Smith can keep things as normal as possible this season. The Razorbacks bring back 16 starters from a team that finished 11-2 last season and defeated Kansas State 29-16 in the Cotton Bowl. Quarterback Tyler Wilson threw for 3,638 yards with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2011-12, and Davis returns after missing all of last season with a broken ankle. He ran for 1,322 yards with 13 touchdowns in 2010-11.
"The progress has been great," Smith said. "You're coming back to a group of young men that have been very, very well-schooled. They know what it's all about. They're a good football team. They have an opportunity to be a great football team."
Smith -- who has a 132-86 record in an 18-year coaching career that also included stops at Idaho, Utah State and Louisville -- won't be the only new face on the Razorbacks' sideline. Paul Petrino, the former head coach's brother, came back as offensive coordinator after spending the previous two seasons at Illinois. Former Ohio State assistant Paul Haynes was hired as defensive coordinator before the Cotton Bowl.
"The transition in my coming back is the easiest it could have been for the young men, who have had to fight through adversity," Smith said. "We didn't have to change. This is what they like about it: We don't have to change our offense; we don't have to change our defense; we don't have to change our special teams; and we don't have to change our philosophy. From that standpoint, it's been easy on them."
By keeping Petrino's staff intact, Smith has focused on being the program's CEO. He has left much of the actual coaching up to his assistants.
Smith has guided six of his teams to conference championships, but his last three teams at Michigan State went 5-7, 5-6 and 4-8. His only bowl victory came at Louisville in the 2001 Liberty Bowl.
"John L. doesn't do too much," Davis said. "He just kind of overlooks everything. He just oversees things and lets the offensive staff do their jobs and the defensive staff do their jobs."
How long Smith keeps the job will ultimately be decided by the Razorbacks' performance this season. If he can finish the job Petrino started and get the Hogs past Alabama and LSU, there's no reason to think the job won't be his for the long haul. Arkansas plays Alabama at home on Sept. 15 and LSU at home on Nov. 23.
But a single bump in the road might derail what figures to be a fragile team after it went through so much adversity during the offseason.
"The pressure part of it, I've never been a big believer that the outside pressure is anything we can control," Smith said. "You have to be like a duck and let that water roll off your back. As coaches we put pressure on ourselves. That pressure comes from within, in what we expect to get done."
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