There's been a lot of smart commentary about why Arkansas' decision to hire John L. Smith as an interim head coach makes some degree of sense. Year2 puts together a solid argument here; Paul Myerberg states a little bit different version of the case here.
Thing is, I disagree with both of them because of the reasons that the other gives.
Take Myerberg's reasoning for looking past Smith's tenure at Michigan State. For one thing, this makes that pretty difficult to do:
But I digress. Myerberg:
It’s the continuity that Smith brings to the program that interests Arkansas, which is not swayed by Smith’s disappointing turn at Michigan State, or the fact that in accepting the school’s offer, Smith is leaving his alma mater, Weber State, in a lurch. Arkansas sees a coach who, for the next 10 months, gives the program its best chance at fulfilling its substantial promise; for the next 10 months, we should view Smith in the same way.
Which is good as far as it goes. (I'm also curious as to why Smith's success in Conference USA should be viewed as a better indicator of his chances in the SEC than the relative flop at Michigan State. But we'll leave that alone.) If Arkansas were in the SEC East or even ifhad left under less extraordinary circumstances, it would be a solid reason for putting Smith at the top of the program. But it seems to forget a couple of tiny facts: Alabama and LSU are still there, and it's not the case that, as Myerberg suggests, "the team that steps on the field in September will resemble in nearly every way the team that topped Kansas State in January’s Cotton Bowl."
Arkansas is losing three good-to-elite wide receivers from that team, meaning that Tyler Wilson and his receiving corps have some work to do just to keep up with the pace Wilson set in 2011. With a Bobby Petrino that never boosted his ick factor to stratospheric levels remaining, I would be a lot more confident in the Razorbacks' ability to fix that problem. With Smith there, I don't have the same level of confidence that I did back when I was mulling whether to tab the Razorbacks as a dark horse national title contender.
Of course, wide receivers aren't the only problem with Arkansas' attempt to win the SEC West. Just listen to Year2.
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. [Emphasis added]
All of that gets back to the same idea: Arkansas was going to face an uphill climb to win the SEC West this year regardless of whether Bobby Petrino was going to be the coach or not. The fact that Bobby Petrino is not going to be the coach only makes the uphill climb harder.
And without wins against LSU and Alabama, there's really not much of a bump that an experienced head coach can provide. There might be one or two games that the head coach could swing the odds on, but much of the non-Alabama and LSU schedule works out favorably for the Hogs.
The three hardest remaining games are probably at a South Carolina team that always struggles with winning Arkansas teams; at Auburn as the Tigers overhaul both sides of the ball; and against a Texas A&M team that wasn't good enough to beat Arkansas last year even with a senior starting quarterback at the helm. It would be disappointing if Arkansas lost more than one of those games and stunning if they lost all three, even with an interim head coach at the helm.
And even if they did, so what? Is moving from the Chick-fil-A Bowl to the Cotton Bowl really worth hiring a coach away from another program for 10 months at $85,000 a month?
All of which would suggest one of two options would be the best idea: Either choose a solid long-term coach from outside the program or go with an interim coach from the current staff. The former gives you the opportunity to begin rebuilding the program with someone who can sell recruits on what's next; the latter is likely to do no worse than win the nine or ten regular-season games that Smith might without the questions that the Smith hiring brings.
Instead, Arkansas has decided to split the difference -- bring in a decent or maybe good interim head coach who won't have any more cachet with recruits and probably won't give Arkansas a notably better chance at winning the SEC West. Holding an inside royal-flush draw with a pair of aces and a pair of kings on the table and two seemingly strong competitors, Arkansas has decided to go all-in on the hopes that the river brings a suited queen. On the slender chance that it does, they'll win the SEC and maybe a national championship and Jeff Long will look like a genius.
But if they don't hit the queen, they're guaranteed to lose. They will have hired Smith for essentially nothing while still taking on all the negatives -- an almost lost recruiting class and the chance that things could go terribly wrong and end up with the Hogs in the Compass Bowl -- that an interim coach brings.
And maybe that will still work out for Arkansas in the long run. But at this point, you have to wonder how many chips the Hogs can really afford to lose.