Former Weber State coach John L. Smith eager to prove himself in the SEC
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — John L. Smith isn't Bobby Petrino and he's not Nick Saban.
The interim Arkansas coach is not renowned for his offensive prowess or defensive scheming. He is known more for his YouTube moments — he jokingly slapped himself in the face while at Michigan State — and adrenaline-seeking adventures.
More than anything, Smith is just John L., a father-figure type who's never met a person he couldn't strike up a conversation with.
"That guy is somebody who is like my dad," said New England Patriots receiver Deion Branch, who played for Smith at Louisville. "I truly love the guy."
Beneath the laughs, though, is a coach brimming with every bit the competitive nature of Petrino — his ousted predecessor with the Razorbacks — or Saban, Alabama's three-time national championship coach.
The 63-year-old Smith is a coach with something left to prove. And he might just be fearless enough to take the Southeastern Conference's most riveting offseason and turn a shocking scandal into a fairytale ending.
The Razorbacks, who are 21-5 the last two seasons and finished ranked No. 5 last season, are counting on it.
"We've been knocking at the door the last few seasons, and I think it's time," star running back Knile Davis said. "We definitely think we can do it, but we can't just think about it. We've just got to go do it."
Arkansas hired Smith last month to replace the disgraced Petrino, who was fired following his affair with football department staffer Jessica Dorrell and after initially misleading the university and public about Dorrell's presence at his April 1 motorcycle accident.
The surprise of Smith's hiring was equaled only by its common sense. He had served as an assistant coach with the Razorbacks for the past three seasons under Petrino, leaving in December to pursue what he thought was one last head coaching job at his alma mater, Weber State.
While at Arkansas as an assistant, Smith endeared himself to players, fellow coaches and administrators alike. His gift of gab made him a rebel of sorts on a coaching staff that otherwise reflected the guarded personality of Petrino.
Smith's nearly 40 years of college coaching, 18 spent as a head coach, as well as his previous stops with Petrino allowed him more leeway than most. The two coached together at four different schools — Idaho, Utah State, Louisville and with the Razorbacks — and Petrino treated his mentor with nothing but respect, allowing Smith to do his job while consulting him when needed.
Still, when Smith's hiring at Arkansas was announced, eyebrows were raised and the questions asked across the country: Really? That guy?
Smith had been largely forgotten nationally following his 2006 firing at Michigan State, where he was a lackluster 22-26 in four seasons. He was more remembered for slapping his face out of frustration at a Spartans' news conference than for being named the 2003 Big Ten Coach of the Year.
To many, he was the goofy coach who had a "meltdown" during a halftime television interview against Ohio State in 2005.
Smith's 132-86 record as a head coach, including 41-21 in five seasons at Louisville, was little more than an afterthought. The coach once revered as a maverick, the likeable fellow who enjoyed skydiving, mountain climbing, riding in jets and jungle safaris was thought to have outlived his coaching shelf life.
Smith did plenty of soul searching following Michigan State, taking two years off from coaching before Petrino brought him to Arkansas in 2009.
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