Commentary

John L. Smith sports credibility issue

Originally Published: April 23, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

My favorite moment of the John L. Smith era at Weber State -- all 4½ months of it -- was the crock pot full of alma mater nonsense he served during his introductory news conference.

[+] EnlargeJohn Smith
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesJohn L. Smith returned to Arkansas after abandoning his Weber State players.

It was passionate. It was poignant. And as it turned out, it was crap.

"No. 1, I've always had a place in my heart for Weber State," said Smith that December day in Ogden, Utah. "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. This hopefully can serve as an opportunity for me to give back something to the university."

Smith gave something back to Weber State. It's called a kick to the groin.

The next time the Bo Ryans of the world try to explain why they won't let a player transfer without restrictions, I'm going to remind them of this latest hog and pony show. It is Reason No. 9,213 why college coaches have a major credibility problem.

Just 11 days ago, Smith was at Weber's Stewart Stadium as his team finished spring practice with the annual Purple and White game. Smith even did a chalk talk with fans and boosters before the game and introduced his newly hired staff.

Tuesday he'll be introduced as Arkansas' rent-a-coach. Smith, a former Razorbacks assistant who left Bobby Petrino's staff for the Weber State job, is leasing himself to the Razorbacks for a year.

Smith was so committed to Weber, so head-over-cleats in love with his alma mater (he played there in 1968-70), that nearly two weeks earlier he already was considering an exit strategy. WSU athletic director Jerry Bovee, when reached by phone in Indianapolis Monday evening, said that Smith mentioned an interest in returning to Arkansas after the disgraced Petrino was fired April 10. But Smith told Bovee that it was a long-shot scenario.

Then, at midnight Monday, as Bovee arrived in Indianapolis for NCAA committee meetings, there were several messages from Smith on his cell phone. They spoke briefly, just long enough for Smith to inform Bovee he was ditching Weber -- the job he supposedly was crazy about -- for a one-season interim gig at Arkansas.

"I got the impression that he felt he had a chance to step into a situation he was familiar with, he was familiar with the personnel," said Bovee. "I got the sense that at this point in his career he was willing to take a shot."

A shot at much more money. A shot at an SEC championship and perhaps a national championship. A shot at becoming the guy who rescued Arkansas from the stench of Petrino's personal scandal.

But in Smith's rearview mirror is an athletic director who put his trust in a coach who, in some ways, is just as disingenuous as Petrino. Smith left behind 18 new recruits who believed in him -- and were betrayed by him. He left behind a staff that came to Ogden because of him.

"We were so excited about having him in our program," said Bovee. "I mean, it's disappointing. I understand there's a business side of this. Ultimately, he had an opportunity to do what's best for him."

Exactly. He did what's best for him, not for the players he abandoned. A player such as Jarrod Uthoff has to jump through a dozen red-and-white Badger hoops before Wisconsin's Ryan and school administrators let him transfer to another non-Big Ten school.

Smith? Hired in December, out by April. No strings attached.

At least Arkansas AD Jeff Long had the decency to speak with Bovee on Monday about the situation. It was a professional, but awkward conversation.

"I know there's never a good time," said Bovee. "This certainly isn't a great time on our end."

Mike Hoke, Weber State's starting quarterback and team captain, was back home in Oahu and had just finished a rehab session for his surgically repaired right shoulder when he noticed he had about 15 text messages. One of them was a mass text from a Weber assistant with the news of Smith's departure.

"I was just shocked," said Hoke, by phone from Hawaii on Monday night. "I kind of thought it was a joke."

Hoke described Smith's move as a "business" decision. He said he doesn't expect any of the players to hold a grudge.

"I personally don't feel betrayed," said Hoke, who has yet to receive a call, text or e-mail from Smith. "I feel more disappointed. We would have been able to do some special things at Weber."

Weber State plays in the Big Sky Conference, not the SEC. It plays in the Football Championship Subdivision, not the BCS. Bovee couldn't afford to pay Smith what he made as an assistant at Arkansas ($235,000 per year).

Plus, Smith has a history with Arkansas. He spent three seasons on Petrino's staff -- the same Petrino whom Smith hired for his own staffs at Idaho, Utah State and Louisville.

But Smith had barely been in Ogden long enough to memorize his new zip code. It would have been one thing had he left after 4½ years. But 4½ months? For a job that's supposed to last only one season?

Back at that December news conference, Smith gushed about coming home to Weber State.

"I'm blessed," he said in a Deseret Morning News story. "The 'L' does stand for Lucky."

Or the L in John L. stands for another word. Four letters. L-i-a-r?

Meanwhile, Bovee is trying to catch a flight back to Utah on Tuesday. He needs to talk with the coaching staff. He wants to see how many players can return to campus (graduation ceremonies were last Friday) for a team meeting.

Bovee isn't angry. He said he doesn't have time for it. He has to hire a new head coach.

"I certainly wasn't going to beg [Smith] to stay at Weber State," said Bovee. "We certainly feel like we're better than that."

They are. And better than Smith, too.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter