Former Weber State coach John L. Smith eager to prove himself in the SEC
Smith and his wife, Diana, thought their stay in Fayetteville would last for just one season. Then they stayed for another, and then a third before the brief departure for Weber State. Smith was his usual effusive self during his introductory news conference with the Razorbacks, cracking jokes, raising his voice and letting Arkansas know his personality was indeed larger than life. He was back in his element, likely for the wiser following his time away from the spotlight.
"Maybe you kick yourself in the tail and say, 'I wish I had not said this and done this' or whatever, but I still think you have to be yourself," Smith said. "Maybe I'm a little more guarded now.
"But still, you have to be yourself. If not, you can't coach these guys. If I try to be somebody else, they're going to know that."
Diana Smith has been with John L. Smith since the beginning, long before the "L" was a commonly accepted part of his name. The two were born one day apart in the same hospital in Idaho Falls, met in the seventh grade and have been married nearly 42 years — following nine years of dating before that.
Diana Smith still remembers well the moment she first saw the new boy in school, when he turned a corner at Ammon Junior High.
"I was standing with a bunch of girls thinking, 'There he is,'" she said. "I didn't even know it was him, but if that's ever happened to you, then you would understand."
She said her husband was immediately drawn to the networking and relationship-building part of coaching when he first started, and that hasn't changed. She was hurt by her husband's exit from Michigan State, and she has noticed a difference since then, suggesting he is "maybe more mature" in his 60s.
John L. Smith signed a 10-month, $850,000 contract with the Razorbacks, though he hopes to prove himself worthy of becoming the school's long-term solution.
"I don't think it's any different than any other contract I've had," Smith said. "You have to win or they're going to boot you out the door. So we have to do that here. I'm just fired up because I'm back with kids I know and I love and I really think I can be a positive influence with."
Smith left behind a four-year, $130,000 annual contract at Weber State to come back to Arkansas, where his return has been anything but a smooth ride.
He knows that he wasn't a universally accepted choice as head coach. One university trustee, Sam Hilburn, even went so far as to object to Smith's hiring in an email to school President Donald Bobbitt less than an hour after the board was informed of the new coach's identity by athletic director Jeff Long.
In the email, which was obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request, Hilburn said Smith "was a total failure" as the team's special teams coach the last three seasons and that he didn't agree with bringing Smith back from Weber State. The Razorbacks led the SEC with four punt returns for touchdowns last season, were third in kickoff coverage and fourth in kickoff return average.
"It is a mistake not to utilize or select someone within the coaching staff presently employed by the university," Hilburn wrote.
And besides the Petrino scandal, six Arkansas players have been arrested this spring. Last week, three were accused of burglarizing dorm rooms and Smith suspended all of them indefinitely.
Smith isn't one to give up on anyone who wants to work and better themselves, ever. Branch was one Smith could have given up on when the receiver transferred to Louisville from junior college. Branch struggled with his grades early on with the Cardinals, but Smith showed just the right mix of support and tough love in steering Branch back on the path to success.
Two Super Bowl championships and an induction to the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame later, Branch still thanks Smith to this day for everything he has accomplished. He called his former coach after each of New England's Super Bowl wins, and the former Super Bowl MVP couldn't hide his excitement after hearing about Smith's hiring at Arkansas.
"Good things happen to great people," Branch said. "He's given numerous guys like me second chances, so it's only right he has another chance to go and prove himself and that he's a great head coach."
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