It seems that Arkansas has taken a front seat in the world of sports talk recently. Their coaching hire has propelled them once again to the forefront of discussion.
Nine out of ten times when a program’s administration makes a hire, my reaction is the same – let’s all stand back and see what happens. Let’s give the new guy a chance to prove himself, to show us that maybe we jumped to conclusions by saying “he can’t do it.”
But, nine out of ten leaves one left over – and that one has become the Arkansas Razorbacks, with the hire of John L. Smith.
There’s plenty of reasons why the hiring make sense. Actually, there’s, like, two.
Most importantly, Smith worked with Petrino during his time at Arkansas. I’ll address that here in just a moment.
Second, Smith has been the coach at a major D-1 program in the past. We’ll get to that in just a moment as well.
That’s the list. That’s both of the reasons the Smith hiring makes sense to Arkansas.
The list of why this is a bad hire is much, much longer.
Let’s start by deconstructing the two reasons that Arkansas feels this is a good hire.
First and foremost: the assumption that John L. Smith’s time under Bobby Petrino has prepared him to take over at Arkansas. In fairness – the familiarity of the players with Smith might be a good thing. Of course, Smith was the special teams coach, so who knows how much input he had with the offense. But, hey, he was there, and he did at least interact with the majority of players.
But, then again – John L. Smith WAS THE SPECIAL TEAMS COACH. He didn’t run the offense. He didn’t have any SAY in the offense. He may have, occasionally, helped Petrino game plan. But his direct interaction with the offense, if it followed the model at most schools, was not near enough for the players who are returning to get familiar with him and his coaching style.
But Smith has been the acting head coach at major schools before. So, maybe he’ll be able to draw from that experience to push Arkansas forward?
Unlikely. The most success that Smith had was during his time at Louisville. His 41-21 (.661) and five consecutive bowl games could be considered impressive. But, let us not forget that at the time, Louisville was a C-USA competitor – not exactly the most impressive place to win just a touch over half of your contests.
But, the success was noted by Michigan State, who brought him on as the new visor-wearer for the Spartans. His time at Michigan State was, to be nice, not good. (Of course, he split Louisville before the season was over, informing his players of his decision at halftime of their bowl game. Arkansas seems to have a knack for finding coaches who’s loyalty to their programs isn’t exactly model.)
Smith took a program that was floundering to… well, they kept floundering. His opening year he was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year with an 8-4 record. Things would not go well the rest of his time in East Lansing. The Spartans didn’t receive a bowl invite in his second year, had a losing year without a bowl invite his third, and went 4-8 his fourth. The season was capped by Smith slapping himself in the face during a press conference – something many MSU fans wanted to do themselves at that point. Smith’s time at MSU, his last as the head of a major program, was by no means one that should instill confidence in the Razorbacks.
The next question about the hiring of Smith has to take into consideration the contract that he was offered by Jeff Long and the Razorbacks – a ten month deal, that in no way guarantees that he will be the long-term coach of the Hogs. In fact, it seems as if the opposite is true – that Long and Arkansas realized that this was a short term fix and not the long term solution. Maybe that thought was inspired by the timing – finding a high level coach at this point in the football calendar isn’t an easy proposition. Maybe it was brought on by the fact that Smith knows how Petrino was running the program and continuity is something they’re striving for. But either way, Arkansas did themselves no favors. Smith was offered, and accepted, a ten month contract. Sure, we all know that it was issued with the thought that Smith now has a year to prove himself, and earn a new, long term contract at the end of the year. But we all know that a coach can only succeed when he has the confidence and backing of the athletic department.
Arkansas has not only issued a short contract to Smith, but has demanded that he leave the entire Petrino coaching staff intact, preventing him from creating his own staff. Forget being given the reigns to the program – Smith has been told to sit quietly in the back of the wagon, and somehow guide it in that manner.
So what, exactly, is Arkansas thinking here?
It’s very simple. They panicked. They realized that boosters were getting anxious, and were thinking that the administration couldn’t find somebody to put into place.
The panic caused them to make a bad decision. They decided to put the unofficial “interim” tag onto Smith to show the boosters that they’re still looking. But, this is another case where letting the inmates run the asylum is ultimately going to cause a negative situation.
The Razorbacks have their best chance to be competitive in the past decade this year. The athletes are about as good as they’re going to get. The schedule (with their toughest two opponents, LSU and Alabama, coming to Fayetteville,) is about as good as it’s going to get.
But Arkansas is going to play this one as if they’ve got another year to put it all together. This hire came with the assumption that this team is going to be as good next year (and the year after) as it is this year.
Not to upset Arkansas fans, but you’re not that good. You’re not an elite level program. As least, not the way that your AD thinks that you are. Arkansas falls behind Alabama, Florida, LSU, Georgia, Tennessee, and Auburn on the “elite program” list of SEC schools. That doesn’t take into consideration the dozens of schools from the rest of the country that prospects are more prone to look at on name value alone.
And what does this do for recruiting? Remember a few articles ago, when I explained why Sean Payton was a terrible idea for interim head coach at Arkansas? And remember how one of the biggest reasons that I said Payton coming to Arkansas was a bad idea was because Arkansas would have an immense amount of trouble recruiting top tier talent?
The reality is, they were having trouble bringing in top tier talent anyway.
After coming off of their best back to back seasons in the past couple of decades, Arkansas snagged a pretty impressive recruiting class – one that Rivals ranked 34th, and ranked behind Cal, Virginia, and Purdue, among others.
This was with a steady head coach, back to back major bowl wins, and no drama in Fayetteville whatsoever.
Now, the head coaching position is up in the air, and stability is as likely in Hogland as someone who can identify a Monet.
So why would you hire a man with no (or, being gracious, very little) success at this level, to come in and take over a program in turmoil, and not give him everything that any other head coach would demand to take over this job?
And, more importantly – why would Arkansas do this at a time where their program has the greatest chance of success they’ve had in decades?
Perhaps if Arkansas was scraping and clawing to keep up with the rest of the SEC, this move would make sense.
But as it stands?
Good luck, Arky.