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Arkansas Makes Bizarre Coaching Choice with John L. Smith


If you were surprised at the announcement Weber State’s John L. Smith would be Arkansas’ head coach for 2012, you certainly weren’t alone. Many reports over the last two weeks linked a number of names, including UAB coach Garrick McGee, former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer or expected Arkansas to pick an assistant on staff. 

Although Smith was a bizarre hire, the Razorbacks could have done worse. Sure, this isn’t a home-run hire by any means, but what choices did Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long have?

Staying the interim route was a strong possibility, but Taver Johnson or Paul Petrino had no head coaching experience. Petrino has a good resume and would have made a lot of sense to be the next coach, but his last name may have prevented him from getting the job. Taking Johnson or Petrino out of their current roles would have had a ripple effect on the rest of the staff, as responsibilities may have been shuffled. Bringing in Smith helps keep the status quo in Arkansas for 2012.

Make no mistake – this is not a long-term solution for Arkansas. Smith is a safe pick for 2012 and will allow the school to conduct an extensive search for its next coach. Although Long could have hired McGee or made a run at Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn, there’s no need to rush an important search or make a rash decision that could hurt the school in the long run.

While this will be Smith’s first and likely only season as Arkansas’ head coach, he has the experience necessary to guide this program through the 2012 season. He served as Idaho’s head coach from 1989-94, recording a 53-20 record. After six years with the Vandals, Smith took over at Utah State and posted a 16-18 mark with one bowl appearance in three seasons. He left the Aggies for Louisville, leading the Cardinals to a 41-21 record with five bowl appearances. Smith didn’t have tremendous success at Michigan State from 2003-06, but his overall career record is 132-86.

Perhaps the most important factor in Smith landing the job was his experience from 2009-2011 as the special teams coach at Arkansas. Although he wasn’t the head coach, Smith knows the players and schemes, which should provide for a seamless transition. Hiring Smith as the head coach allows Taver Johnson to continue focus on his duties on the defensive side of the ball.

Although losing Petrino has certainly changed the outlook for the Razorbacks in 2012, Smith brings a sense of familiarity and some stability to the program. Arkansas still ranks behind Alabama and LSU, but no longer seems to be in a free fall. Considering what has transpired this spring, the Razorbacks are going to be a hungry team. The players certainly want to prove they are capable of winning a SEC title, while the coaches could be working for a job on Arkansas’ staff for 2013 or auditioning for another school.

Replacing a head coach in the middle of spring practice is no easy task – especially one that was as successful as Bobby Petrino was at Arkansas. Although McGee or Malzahn make more sense from a long-term perspective, it’s difficult to ask a head coach at a FBS school to leave just after spring practice.

After Smith’s rocky tenure at Michigan State, it’s surprising to see him back on the sidelines at a BCS school. And it’s a bizarre fit at Arkansas considering what has transpired this offseason.

However, considering the circumstances, the marriage of Smith and Arkansas is one that makes a lot of sense. The Razorbacks aren’t going to win the SEC West, but bringing Smith from Weber State allows for the assistants to stay in their roles and the players to have a coach who certainly has some familiarity with them and life in the SEC.

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

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