Arkansas’ Smith as unpredictable, humorous as ever

Travis Swanson wasn’t sure what to expect from John L.

Smith.

The Arkansas center sat in the Broyles Center meeting room on

April 23 with the rest of his teammates, already aware that Smith

had been hired to replace Bobby Petrino as head coach.

Swanson had seen Smith, who had served as an assistant coach for

the past three seasons before leaving four months earlier to become

head coach at Weber State, when filing into the meeting room. He

knew that Smith was the guy right to replace Petrino, but Swanson

was unsure how Smith would act as the guy in charge.

”Hey, hey. Sit up. Here he comes,” Swanson said to nearby

teammates.

Smith walked to the front of the room, his best poker face in

play. After weeks of scandalous revelations about Petrino and

questions from friends and family, Swanson was sucked into the look

of seriousness on Smith’s face.

”Gentlemen,” Smith’s high-pitched voice carried throughout the

room, a reassuring grin spreading across his face.

Swanson let out an immediate sigh of relief.

”OK, he’s the exact same,” he thought. ”He hasn’t changed

whatsoever.”

Smith’s simple act of a smile let Swanson and the rest of the

Razorbacks know the coach they had known as an assistant wasn’t

about to change his ways. He’s playful, well-versed in sarcasm and

has never met a person he didn’t want to get to know better.

The former Michigan State and Louisville coach is also not shy

about handing out a good ”kick in the tail” when needed, and the

Razorbacks are counting on him to steer a talented team through the

remaining wake of the Petrino scandal.

”As far as his experience and knowledge of the game, and his

encouragement toward all the guys, he is ultimately your dream

coach to play for,” Arkansas kicker Zach Hocker said. ”As far as

winning, we don’t know yet. That’s a step in front of us, but as

far as preparation and getting ready for this season, he is the

ultimate coach.”

Smith’s unpredictable ways were well known before his arrival at

Arkansas. From slapping his face out of frustration at a news

conference while with the Spartans to a tirade during a halftime

television interview, every moment was an adventure.

He’s talked about learning from his past and being a little less

open since his hiring by the Razorbacks, but that hasn’t kept him

from engaging in some good-natured fun. At least once a new

conference, Smith seems to find an opportunity to have some fun –

whether it’s calling reporters ”sissies” for not playing in a

golf tournament, joking that ”the only time I feel bad is when I

have to see you guys,” or comparing his hair loss with a bald

reporter.

The fun carries over to the meeting room, where even first-year

defensive coordinator Paul Haynes has had to adapt to Smith’s

barrage of sarcasm and cut-ups.

”He’s like that every day,” Haynes said. ”And the thing is

… Once you sit there and he says something to you, usually in a

loud voice, it’s like you pause to see, `Is he going to smile or is

he serious about it?’

”It keeps you on your toes trying to figure it out, and I don’t

think you ever will.”

Smith’s larger-than-life personality has also carried over into

preseason camp, where ”laid back” was the description given by

several players. It’s a far change from the monotone and

in-your-face ways of Petrino, though junior safety Eric Bennett

made it clear that Smith is every bit as demanding as his

predecessor.

”He brings the type of energy that makes you want to work,”

Bennett said. ”With that type of coach, you want to go out there

and work. He doesn’t have to yell at you all day. He can go out

there and joke around with us, but when it’s time to get serious,

it’s time to get serious.”

Hocker knows Smith as well as any of the players, having been

recruited by him in high school and working closely with him while

Smith was special teams coordinator the last two seasons.

During their time together, Hocker learned plenty about Smith –

who he affectionately called ”a nut.” For all of the good

conversation and fun times, however, it wasn’t until the death of

teammate Garrett Uekman last November from an undiagnosed heart

condition that Hocker truly understood ”how compassionate and

strong in his faith he is.”

”He had all the guys’ backs through everything,” Hocker

said.

Smith’s return as head coach is unlike any other job he’s had in

his career. Rather than facing a rebuilding project, he’s taken

over a program that went 21-5 the last two seasons, finished last

season ranked No. 5 and fields two Heisman Trophy hopefuls in

quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis.

It’s also a job where he has complete familiarity, thanks to his

position as an assistant coach with the Razorbacks the last three

seasons.

”It’s more like you’re in the shoe that you should be in rather

than trying to fit your foot in, if that makes sense,” Smith said.

”… I think that’s the biggest difference than taking over

something where it’s two years you’re trying to get your foot in

the shoe. Here your foot’s already in there. We do have a comfort

level.”

Smith’s future at Arkansas is every bit as uncertain as how the

Razorbacks will fare on the field this season. He was signed to a

10-month contract after leaving his alma mater, Weber State, and

his fate will likely hinge on how Arkansas fares against the two

teams it lost to last season – defending national champion Alabama

and runner-up LSU.

However the season plays out, Smith is comfortable with what

he’s learned since his last time as a head coach at Michigan State

in 2006. He’s also comfortable with a group of Arkansas players

he’s known for three years, as well as his people-first approach to

coaching.

”I think you have to be yourself, to a degree,” Smith said.

”Are we all going to grow? Yes. Are we all going to be a little

bit different? Probably.

”But I still think you have to be yourself, regardless of what

it is you do in life. I’m going to go slap those guys in the tail

and show excitement … And I guess a little bit of craziness at

times.”