John L. Smith has been skydiving and mountain climbing before.
His wife, Diana, reminded him of those exploits as he tried to decide whether to leave his position as head coach at Weber State, his alma mater, to return to Arkansas as head coach for one season.
“My wife said this is just another one of your adventures,” Smith said. “She said, ‘Here’s the deal. You’re going back to people that love you. You’re going back to a team that is a good football team and you have a chance to fight for a national championship.’ She said, ‘This might be the only chance you have left.’ So she said, ‘You’re going back.’”
Shortly after, Smith made the decision to take the Arkansas job. The hire and his 10-month $850,000 contract were announced Monday, then Smith was introduced at a Tuesday afternoon press conference.
His decision ended a 140-day stay at Weber State and returned Smith to the program where he spent the last three years as a linebackers coach and special teams coordinator, a program he will try to lead to its third consecutive 10-plus win season this fall.
“Our expectations are the same,” Smith said. “Nothing’s going to slow down. In fact, we’re going to speed up. Our expectations are that we’re going to go ahead and we’re going to battle and fight for a national title. It was that way when I walked in the door three years ago and it’s going to continue to be that way.”
The 63 year old started the dialogue between himself and the UA when he made a call to John Fagg, associate athletic director for compliance, inquiring about returning as the Petrino’s successor.
“Until that call he had not jumped out at me, but I went through the process and continued to work with some people and talk with some people,” Long said. “We got to a certain point, I wanted to have a conversation and we talked. Things came together over the course of several days and moreso recently when I was clear where I wanted to go.”
The hire came just three days after Long told ESPN reporter Jeannine Edwards there were 12 candidates Saturday during the spring game. Long said he made the decision to hire Smith on Sunday night.
“She pressed me for a number,” Long said. “I said at that point I thought there were 12 people that were kind of legitimately interested. There are many more that kind of expressed interest through one source or another.”
Smith’s decision to leave his alma mater in mid-April was met with some criticism from national media, while Weber State athletic director Jerry Bovee said, “the timing of this announcement is problematic” in a statement released Monday night, though Smith said Bovee sympathized with the decision.
“This is one of the toughest decisions in my life that I’ve ever had to make,” Smith said. “The people at Weber State, starting with Jerry Bovee, said I understand why you’re doing this. The players that I was fortunate enough to meet with before I left said, ‘Hey coach, if we were you we’d do that.’ They understood.
“My coaches that were there that I had brought in … they understand the profession.”
Long hiring Smith allowed Petrino’s staff to remain intact and keep the offensive and defensive systems in place, providing continuity for a team that won 21 games, had a Sugar Bowl appearance and Cotton Bowl win the last two seasons.
Smith has previously worked with eight of the nine assistant coaches on staff. Associate head coach/linebackers coach Taver Johnson is the only assistant that hasn’t worked with the former Louisville and Michigan State head coach.
“Really, from a coach’s standpoint, I am more concerned about the players and what they wanted, which is for our staff to stay together and to have the opportunity to have their coaches stay, to me is what was the most important thing,” running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Tim Horton said.
On the field and in the meeting rooms, Smith’s upbeat, light-hearted personality could contrast with the intense coaching style displayed by Petrino the last four seasons.
“If you’re not a rant and raver and a cusser and a facemask grabber, don’t do it,” Horton said. “You’ve got to be who you are and be true to yourself. Players can read through that … There are going to be a few more laughs around the office and that’s not a bad thing.”
Whether Smith will remain with the program in any capacity after the 2012 season is undetermined, regardless of on-field success in the fall, Long said.
“At the end of the season we’ll have an indication of the job he’s done and we’ll be prepared for the future of our program, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that a certain number of wins will result in him being our permanent head coach,” Long said.
Long said he won’t announce a new head coach until after the season, one that could begin with the Razorbacks ranked as a preseason top 10 team for the first time since 1989.
“I’ll be evaluating and I’ll be talking to people,” Long said. “This really gives me extended time period to both evaluate this current staff and other coaches. So, it’s really a luxury. Many times when you’re changing coaches you’re doing it there in the November time period and you really have a short window because you are concerned about recruiting at that time, you want a coach that can finish recruiting strong.
“So I think this process gives us a chance to move quickly after the end of the season if that’s our decision.”