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Former Weber State coach John L. Smith eager to prove himself in the SEC

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 6:22 a.m. MDT

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.

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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