John L. Smith: An Original
He’s garnered the attention of many in Arkansas as the “crazy uncle,” a phrase that was peppered throughout Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly during the summer and with increasing frequency in the week leading up to the Razorbacks’ first football game of the season.
But John L. Smith doesn’t seem to take notice. It didn’t stop him from calling the defensive ends “pretty,” Tyler Wilson a “rose” or wearing cowboy boots with his suits. For the interim head coach of the Razorbacks, “you have to be yourself.”
And if that means he has to “go slap those guys in the tail and show excitement and, I guess, a little bit of craziness at times”, then so be it.
“He brings a level of lightness I think,” said senior quarterback Tyler Wilson. “There was a dark cloud over there for a little while. When you see his face you can’t help but smile, and I think that’s a tremendous bit that he brings to the table.”
Wilson isn’t the only player that admires Smith. Junior kicker Zach Hocker was recruited by Smith and is happy to see him as interim head coach.
“I love Coach Smith to death,” Hocker said. “He recruited me out of high school, and we’re on a good, personal level. Coach Smith is really encouraging. When I miss, I’m going to come off the sideline and still be encouraged by him.
“The laid back atmosphere and just knowing that the team has my back and the head coach has my back gives me confidence to go out there and make everything this year,” he said.
And that encouragement is key to his personality.
“I think that it’s when you try to be something that you’re not that everybody’s going to see that,” Smith said. “In the realm of the coach, in the realm of somebody that (the players) are looking at everyday, you try to be an inspiration, a leader, a guiding force. They’re going to know it if you’re not yourself.
“You better be legit in whatever it is you do.”
At a press conference April 23, Athletic Director Jeff Long announced the hiring of Smith as interim head coach to fill the hole left by Bobby Petrino, who was fired at the beginning of the month after a motorcycle crash revealed his infidelity with an employee that he played a role in hiring over a large pool of applicants.
“Of course, I’m close with these coaches, and that’s where it all generated from,” Smith said. “In conversation with the coaches and what was taking place and their, I assume, hope that they can keep things in place, and I would be able to work it out where I could come back.”
Smith had left Weber State, a Division I FCS program, his alma mater. He had been hired as the head coach of Weber State after three seasons with the Razorbacks as linebackers coach and special teams coordinator.
“There was some difficulty, yes,” Smith said of leaving Weber State. “I have three years invested over here with guys that you know, you love, and a staff that you’ve been with prior, too, and the hard work that has gone into this program and you look at in and you say, ‘Well, could I provide a stabilizing force to help and show loyalty to those guys.’
“It outweighed to me the other one. Yeah, there was a little bit of hesitancy and a little bit of decision making, but in the end you might say once you weighed it out, it was a pretty clear decision,” he said.
It was the relationships with coaches and players that pulled Smith’s heartstrings and brought him back to Arkansas.
“In my heart I felt like I have to do that; I have to go back to those guys,” he said. “That’s the reason you get in coaching — to make an influence on young men, to be a part of their life, to hopefully help them on their adventure.”
Past Coaching Record
Weber State wasn’t Smith’s first head coaching position at a Division I school. It was his fifth. Smith also coached at the University of Idaho, Utah State, the University of Louisville and Michigan State.
Smith earned a 110-59 (.651) combined record at Idaho, Utah State and Louisville and won two conference titles at each school.
Michigan State was a different story. In 2003, Smith’s first season with the Spartans, he took the team, which the previous season had gone 4-8 with only two of those wins in the Big Ten, to a 8-5 record with a bowl game appearance.
However, the Big Ten proved to be difficult, and the record dropped the next three years until 2006, when the Spartans went 4-8 with only one conference win. Michigan State bought out Smith’s contract, and he ended his tenure with Michigan State with a 22-26 (.458) record.
Goals for the Razorbacks
Despite the coaching change and player difficulties during spring football, Smith and the Razorbacks are not shying away from openly saying that the goal is to be a National Championship team.
“You have to embrace that,” Smith said. “We’ve brought that on ourselves, so to speak, and we’ve wanted that. (It’s) nothing more than a compliment to these kids, to the fans and to the program to get to a point where we can throw it out there.”
As for the pressure that may cause, Smith said that’s what makes the team.
“I think we operate better under pressure, if that is the case, and better under those expectations and better under those demands,” he said.
Players like the pressure that Smith puts on the team to be successful.
“You can’t hesitate in any thing you do,” Wilson said of Smith’s calling the Razorbacks a National Championship team. “I like that about him. We haven’t hesitated in five years to say that word.”