Gareth Patterson, Associated Press
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — John L. Smith stood at the podium, pouncing with a smile on every question he was asked about his surprise hire as the coach at Arkansas.
The guy asked to pick up the pieces following the scandal-tainted ouster of Bobby Petrino handled everything thrown his way and was adamant Tuesday about keeping Arkansas in the thick in the Southeastern Conference and national championship races.
"I want to say that our expectations are the same," Smith said at his introductory news conference with a handful of players watching nearby. "Nothing is going to slow down. In fact, we're going to speed up. Our expectations are that we're going to battle and fight for a national title."
Those unfamiliar with Smith's ebullient personality, and those used to Petrino's low-key ways, quickly discovered that times have definitely changed in Fayetteville.
The 63-year-old Smith, who was an assistant for Arkansas the last three seasons under Petrino, is back after leaving the school in December to become the head coach at Weber State. He returns to a program that finished No. 5 last season and has even higher goals in the fall.
It's a program now led by the sometimes quirky and outgoing Smith, known as much for his adrenaline-seeking ways as for head coaching stints at Michigan State and Louisville, among others over 18 years. He's run with the bulls in Spain, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and loves to skydive.
Smith, who signed a 10-month, $850,000 contract that will allow athletic director Jeff Long to reassess Arkansas' coaching situation after next season, said he hasn't been skydiving in a couple of years. He said the decision to leave his alma mater after five months without coaching a game required a similar leap of faith, one made easier by his familiarity with the Razorbacks' coaching staff and players.
"I guess I've always kind of been that way, to a degree," Smith said. "If there's a door open, walk through it. If there's a window, jump out of it. It's like my wife (Diana) said, 'This is just another one of your adventures.'"
Smith replaces Petrino, who once replaced Smith at Louisville after the 2002 season. The two have worked together on four different coaching staffs in their careers, but Smith said he hasn't talked with the former Arkansas coach since he was fired April 10 for not disclosing his affair with a woman, Jessica Dorrell, he later hired as his assistant. Dorrell has resigned.
Smith has a 132-86 record as a head coach, including stops at Michigan State, Louisville, Idaho and Utah State. Long said he hadn't considered bringing Smith back as head coach until assistant athletic director Jon Fagg told him Smith had contacted the school with interest.
Smith said leaving Weber State was "one of the toughest decisions of my life." After nearly two weeks of searching for a solution, Long finally made up his mind to go with Smith Sunday night.
"I obviously said, 'Wow. I should be thinking about John L.," Long said. "This was the best decision for this team for the 2012 season."
One of the primary concerns for the players following Petrino's departure was keeping the current coaching staff in place. Petrino had been at the school since December 2007, and players such as rising senior quarterback Tyler Wilson had never played in any system other than Petrino's.
Bringing Smith back allows the staff to remain intact for at least the upcoming season, and it reunites the group with a familiar face. Smith said he will allow offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and defensive coordinator Paul Haynes to run their systems, but he made it clear he is the head coach and has final say on play calling.
Running backs coach Tim Horton said the uncertainty of the past few weeks has worn on the coaches. He was relieved to have a head coach in place.
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