Arkansas’ Smith as unpredictable, humorous as ever
Travis Swanson wasn’t sure what to expect from John L.
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
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
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
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
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
”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
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
”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
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
”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