Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long wants a football coach with ”discipline and accountability.” Someone with ”honesty and integrity on and off the field.”
And he would like that coach in place within two weeks of the end of the regular season, which wraps up Nov. 23 when No. 6 LSU visits Fayetteville. Will that person be John L. Smith, the interim coach whose team is 3-4 and is getting headlines for his $40.7 million personal bankruptcy?
Long reiterated Monday that Smith, despite his 10-month contract, is a candidate for the job but said it would be apparent at the end of the season whether Smith is his choice for the future. And he said the program is in better shape than it might have been after the firing of coach Bobby Petrino in April and a 1-4 start that ruined any hopes for a run at an SEC or even national title.
”Not one player left our program,” Long said. ”I think they believe in the program that we’re running.”
Long hired Smith as interim coach for $850,000 to handle the team for the season, even though Smith is going through a $40.7 million personal bankruptcy over land deals that collapsed in Kentucky. Addressing the Touchdown Club in Little Rock, Long told an audience of Razorback fans that he wouldn’t discuss coaching candidates but he did lay out some of the elements that will go into the search.
First, Long said he wants to quickly sift through any coaches who are trying to leverage for a raise at their existing schools and that he’s looking for a leader who wants to build a national champion and not be intimidated by competing in the Southeastern Conference.
Long said the football program has facilities that will attract top coaches and top athletes, including plans to add a special academic facility for players. Practice and training facilities are being tied together to enable coaches to more efficiently use the practice time allowed by the NCAA.
The Razorbacks have put together a two-game winning streak, beating Auburn and Kentucky, not exactly SEC powers. But Long said the players have adapted to the change not only at head coach but to a new system of assistant coaches as well.
”I think we’ve seen in the last couple weeks a program that’s starting to get better,” Long said.
Speaking with reporters after his talk, Long said Smith’s bankruptcy hasn’t been a distraction to the players and that he’s unconcerned that Smith has had to devote time to untangling his finances. Smith was in a hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Friday, the day before the Kentucky game.
He added that the university structured deferred payments to Smith as it has done with other coaches and that the salary terms had nothing to do with Smith’s bankruptcy, which Long said Smith told him may be coming when he interviewed for the job. Petrino was fired after Long learned he had hired his former mistress as a recruiting coordinator and lied about her presence at a motorcycle accident.
Arkansas is off this weekend and next plays Ole Miss in Little Rock on Oct. 27.
Long said the next coach needs to be ready to lift Arkansas to elite status.
”We’re going to stand our ground and then we’re going to work to get back to where we all know we should be, and that’s at the top,” Long said.
He noted that expectations were high at the start of the season, when the Razorbacks were ranked No. 8.
”Maybe we weren’t as good as we thought we were. But now we’ve kind of refocused ourselves. We’re starting to play like we expected to play,” Long said.
Long didn’t mention it but the Razorbacks, were stung by injuries to key players early in the season, including a head injury suffered by starting quarterback Tyler Wilson, who was knocked out of the second half of an overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe and missed the next week’s drubbing by No. 1 Alabama.
”Certainly we’re not where we expected to be when we started this season. But we’re not folding up our tent,” Long said. ”We stood and we turned this negative into a positive.”