Jeff Long made a thought-provoking choice in John L. Smith as interim head football coach.
As noted a little bit ago, Jeff Long has hired John L. Smith to be the interim head coach at Arkansas. You have questions. Here are the best answers we've got.
Really, John L. Smith?
Smith was one of Bobby Petrino's mentors, and he was the guy Petrino actually replaced at Louisville. The two of them worked together several different schools. He also has more than a decade of head coaching experience at the I-A level. So between familiarity and experience, Smith is as solid a choice as any for interim head coach.
Does this mean Long doesn't have confidence in anyone else on the current staff?
No and yes, in a way. Smith was the special teams coach at Arkansas under Petrino from 2009-11, so he was on last year's staff. He took the head coaching job at his alma mater Weber State in December, but he was only away for four months. Choosing Smith to be the interim guy is kind of like picking a guy off of the current staff who just happened to take a four-month leave of absence.
It's hard to say who Long could have reasonably picked off of the current staff anyway. Both spring interim head coach Taver Johnson and defensive coordinator Paul Haynes are brand new to the program and have zero coordinator experience. Politically, Long probably couldn't put offensive coordinator Paul Petrino in charge as he is the disgraced former head coach's brother. Running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Tim Horton was floated as a possibility for interim guy, but again, Smith has over a decade of head coaching under his belt. Horton does not.
Will "interim" really mean interim?
Almost certainly. Pat Forde reported that Smith's contract is only for 10 months. That's not the kind of deal you give to someone who is going to be around for a while. In addition, Smith is 63 and was out of coaching for a couple of years before Petrino hired him at Arkansas. If the Razorbacks win a national title this fall, we can revisit this answer. For now, "interim" really does mean interim.
What's in it for Smith?
It does seem fitting that Petrino's replacement is taking over after leaving a job he was at only four months, doesn't it?
Anyway, it's one more chance for Smith to take the reins of a big time college football program. He probably wouldn't have had a shot at doing so any other way. Arkansas is also going to be pretty good this fall. If he wins 10 games with Petrino's team, then maybe he can get one more gig somewhere. If not, a Weber State-level job will probably still be out there for him. Perhaps he'll just do this one more time and retire. Who knows? It's not a big risk for him though, and the payoff could be big.
Why is Arkansas doing this?
The chances of hiring a real keeper of a head coach in April are slim to none. The only real possibilities of doing so would be getting a guy from the NFL, which seldom works out in college, or getting a good guy who happens to be out of work. The best three out-of-work head coaches (Urban Meyer, Mike Leach, and Rich Rodriguez) all got snapped up over the winter, so Long picking an interim guy was pretty much inevitable. All of the other programs with oddly timed head coaching departures from the past couple of years—Vanderbilt, Ohio State, UNC—all went with interim guys too.
If Smith hadn't left for Weber State in December, he'd probably have been the interim guy from the day Petrino got fired and no one would've had a second thought about it. Long hiring him away from a lower division team makes this unusual, but he was on last year's staff. The players love him, and he has good rapport with everyone around the program. Going with Smith and giving him a 10-month contract makes it perfectly clear that a full search will go on later this year, something that picking a younger assistant as interim would have muddied some.
Under the circumstances, which are as strange as any other adjective, Smith makes sense as a one-year caretaker. This year's Arkansas team won't have enough defense win the SEC West regardless of who is in charge, so going with Smith at least will set the stage for a clean coaching search come November.