Hog hire: Best decision in a bad situation

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 123 views 

When the news broke this afternoon that Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long had hired Bobby Petrino’s replacement, the initial reaction I had was, “What?!?!”

People who know me know how much I despise using exclamation points. (Hey, you learn little things that stick with you the rest of your life in college.) To emphasize how surprised I was at Long’s choice, I felt the need to use them here.

If you take a gander at any Twitter feed from a national writer or just an average Southeastern Conference football fan, my reaction is shared by plenty.

John L. Smith is a shocking hire, no question. However, the longer the news settles in, the more understanding I have become.

Smith guarantees that there will be staff continuity, and the players obviously love playing for him.

“This is the best day of my life,” star running back Knile Davis tweeted after the team was informed of Smith’s decision to return to Fayetteville from Weber State.

With eight of the nine assistant coaches already having worked with or for Smith in the past, it also diminishes the element of surprise when the coaches have their first film study session as a cohesive unit. With a screwed up situation that has engulfed the Arkansas football program over the past month, that reason alone is worth taking the chance on Smith for 10 months – the length of his letter of agreement he is working under as of this afternoon.

Arkansas fans, you have gone from a coach that was an expert in coach speech to one who could potentially say anything and everything under the sun. Petrino could say so little with so many words, you’d think he’s still a National Football League head coach.

With Smith, there’s no telling what he will say or do in a post-game press conference. Heck, the guy slapped himself in a room full of reporters and television cameras following a humiliating loss to Notre Dame while he ran the Michigan State program.

His overall record isn’t anything to write home about, and the last time he was the head coach on a big stage, it was a general flop in East Lansing. However, Smith gives this year’s Razorbacks a proven head coach with a solid track record to guide them through what could be a tremendous season — one that may dwarf the accomplishments of the 10-win 2010 squad and the 11-win 2011 team.

I really thought Long would go the route many athletic directors before him took in similar situations: hire from within the staff and try to get to November with more wins than losses. At schools with tremendous expectations, this scenario has never panned out. Look no further than Luke Fickell at Ohio State last season.

Knowing this, Long’s gamble isn’t necessarily the wrong move at all. The proof is in the pudding concerning promoting from within on that front. The last thing you want to do is give a guy who isn’t ready for the spotlight and responsibility that comes with guiding the Arkansas football program just enough success that you can’t move on from him when this year wraps up at the bowl game. Arkansas deserves better than to have someone going through on-the-job training.

The biggest point that Long and Smith need to emphasize is that this job is an interim basis today and it will remain that way until a full-time coach (other than Smith) is hired at year’s end.

No matter the record, Smith has shown that he cannot handle the big stage and keep the machine going that Petrino built in four years at UA.

My admiration for Long did not diminish once all the pieces of the puzzle came together surrounding the Smith hire this afternoon. If he gives him the full-time gig, I’d have to rethink my stance on that.