Embrace might have been a poor word choice given the biting jokes about Jessica Dorrell on the back of Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle. But that was the word Arkansas’ new head football coach John L. Smith used when asked about the talent-rich team and tawdry mess he was inheriting in Fayetteville.
“Let’s embrace the adversity, learn from it, and move on,” Smith said with the enthusiasm of a revival preacher.
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Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long announced Smith as the Razorbacks’ new man at a news conference on Tuesday, exactly 14 days after Long stood at the same podium to announce the firing of Petrino.
“When Coach Smith first approached me about returning to Arkansas to serve in this position, he talked about his desire to be a part of the continued success of these student-athletes, this coaching staff and the Razorback program,” Long said.
Now, both Smith and Long will have no choice but to put a big, wrap-around bear hug on the adversity and use it to their advantage. If initial reaction is any indication, Smith could be exactly the right choice, even if his contract is for only one season.
Older (63) and with a much more engaging disposition than Petrino, Smith was one of the more beloved assistants in the Arkansas stable where he served as special teams and outside linebackers coach for three seasons. He also has the dual luxury of extensive head coaching experience and an intimate knowledge of all the players.
“The happiest day of my life,” running back Knile Davis tweeted on Monday night. “Hearing that John L. Smith is coming back to (be) our head coach.”
The hire isn’t without some controversy, though. Just as Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons for Arkansas in the middle of the night (leaving notes in players’ lockers wishing them well), Smith abandoned his alma mater, Weber State, for Fayetteville without coaching a single regular-season game.
But that didn’t seem to matter on Tuesday as the Hogs welcomed their new man. Davis and several other players, including quarterback Tyler Wilson, attended Smith’s news conference where the new coach tried to add salve to the stinging wound brought on by the drama of the previous two weeks.
“The first thing you have to do is sell your institution,” the coach said. “We are going to sell the football program, not an individual, but the program. We have a top-10 football program and hopefully I can add what I have to help us get all the way.”
He talked about how he would handle his coordinators and how wonderful it felt to have the players “invite the wayward son back home again.” But his mood turned serious and somber when he was asked if he felt he could be a role model for the Arkansas players.
“The reason you get into coaching, hopefully, is to make a difference in a young man’s life,” he said. “Maybe I can be a role model. Maybe I can be something special in a young man’s life. I hope I can. I’m hoping I can be a role model here.”
The players are certainly ready to embrace Smith as a role model and a coach.
As long as he wins, the fans and administration will most likely accept him as well.