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.
"I think we were just focused and concerned for the players," Horton said. "You want what's best for the players, and I don't think that there's any doubt our players wanted to keep our staff intact."
Smith wasted little time in reminding everyone just how different his personality is from Bobby Petrino's. His hands rose and dropped with the pitch of his voice, his eyes widened, he joked with reporters. He was clearly a welcome sight for many.
Wilson said he texted Smith as soon as he heard of his return.
"It's a fulfilling moment," Wilson said. "I know he's a guy that is going to come in and help run things but not change things up. He's a great personality, a great leader, and I'm glad to play for him."
Smith was once thought of as an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks after leading Louisville to a 41-21 record over five seasons, including five straight bowl appearances. His star never shined brighter than in 2003 when he was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year for leading Michigan State to an 8-5 record in his first season. The win total was most by a first-year coach in the Spartans' history, but things went quickly downhill.
Michigan State was 14-21 in Smith's next three seasons, leaving him with a 22-26 overall record.
He made it clear Tuesday that he was eager for a shot a redemption at Arkansas, whether the job lasts 10 months or beyond. Long said Smith, along with the other assistants, would be evaluated and considered for the job following next season.
Long also said he would consider other candidates between now and then, noting that few coaches were willing to leave their programs during spring practice and prime recruiting time, even for a team that looks loaded.
"I will wait until after the season to take action, but certainly I'll be evaluating and I'll be talking to people," Long said. This really gives me extended time period to both evaluate this current staff and other coaches. So, it's really a luxury."
Either way, Smith said he was up for the challenge with a team that finished 11-2 last year, with its only losses to national champion Alabama and runner-up LSU. The Hogs were 21-5 over the last two seasons under Petrino and returns Heisman Trophy hopefuls at quarterback (Wilson) and running back (Knile Davis).
Petrino was known for leading Arkansas with a heavy hand. Razorbacks kicker Zach Hocker, who was offered an Arkansas scholarship by Smith and then coached by him for two seasons, called him "a players' coach."
It's just the first of what is likely to be many changes to come with the Razorbacks.
"We're going to be friendly, we're going to be accessible and we're going to take ourselves to the people as much as we can," Smith said. "We have a short period of time to do it, but you have to do it.
"We can't sit here in our little ivory tower, right?" We've got to get out there and motivate and get going, and we're going to do that."