We're not even to May yet, but Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long gets the early vote for Administrator of the Year in college football.
Long did the right thing – even though it was the hard thing – when he fired super-successful coach Bobby Petrino. Long handled that difficult duty with enough fortitude and passion that it turned fan disappointment and anger into pride in the institution. Big-money donations immediately flowed in after Long deposed his duplicitous coach.
Now Long has backed that up with a smart hire in John L. Smith as Petrino's short-term replacement. Not a sexy hire, but a smart one.
The Arkansas fans wildly wishing for one of the Usual Untouchable Suspects – Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, the ghost of Bear Bryant – may not love it. The Arkansas fans wildly wishing for one of the Unusual Suspects – Sean Payton or a current head coach at a powerhouse program – will be disappointed. But the Arkansas fans who want what's best for both a very talented 2012 team and the future will indeed be happy with John L. He's the best available man for the job.
This Arkansas team doesn't need a star coach as much as it needs system continuity. Smith, an assistant the past two years, gives the Razorbacks that. The offenses and defenses will be largely the same as what was practiced all spring – and given the players running those schemes, that's the important thing. Breaking the mold and breaking in a completely new coach after spring practice would do more harm than good.
[ Related: Arkansas names John L. Smith its next football coach ]
This is better than elevating a current coordinator – Paul Petrino runs the offense and Paul Haynes runs the defense – neither of whom has been a head coach before. Piling new face-of-the-program duties on their plates would only detract from their ability to do what they know and do best.
Smith can handle those things. He's been a head coach for 18 years and was a consistent winner everywhere until the pratfall at Michigan State. Smith had winning seasons 14 of his first 15 years, then was fired after three straight losing seasons in East Lansing from 2004-06.
Smith spent a couple of years out of football after Michigan State, but that drove him crazy. He finally got back in as an assistant to Bobby Petrino at Arkansas in 2009, then left to be the head coach at Weber State this off-season before pulling a U-turn back to Fayetteville.
(Maybe Petrino can now take John L.'s job at spurned Weber. The two have been trading jobs for a while – Petrino replaced Smith at Louisville, and now Smith replaces Petrino at Arkansas, so why not Petrino to Ogden?)
Smith is not being called an interim coach, but make no mistake: he's an interim coach. Arkansas is giving him a 10-month contract, and it doesn't get any more interim than that. He will be given a chance to win over the populace and Long, but the school has every intention of launching a national search for a long-term coach after this season.
Long can still hit the home run next winter that some fans were unrealistically hoping for this spring.
For now, the Razorbacks get everything they need out of this: the schematic continuity and head-coaching experience to make 2012 as smooth as possible, but no handcuffs on who to hire for the future.
Instead of lunging at an unemployed big name with an NFL pedigree who doesn't even know Tyler Wilson's name, much less his game, they get a veteran coach who knows every player in the locker room. Instead of elevating an untrained assistant into the Luke Fickell role of sudden spokesman to a statewide fan base and national media audience, they get a guy who talked to booster groups and has done interview sessions countless times before.
(Not that John L. is a predictable guy with a microphone in his face. He is a character, to say the least, and prone to saying and doing some unconventional things. He's slapped himself in the face in press conferences multiple times and famously told an ESPN sideline reporter at halftime of a Michigan State game, "The kids are playing their tails off, and the coaches are screwing it up!")
But the uncle of 49ers quarterback Alex Smith knows the game and isn't going to embarrass the program the way the last coach did. In a year when the Razorbacks figure to enter the season in the top 10 and will host SEC West rivals LSU and Alabama, John L. Smith gives Arkansas its best chance to fulfill the promise the upcoming season holds.
In a decision fraught with peril, with many potential wrong choices, Jeff Long made the right choice Monday. It's been a tough month to be the athletic director at Arkansas, but he's handled it brilliantly.
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