FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long wasted little time in bringing the John L. Smith era to a close.
Long said in a statement released by the university Saturday that Smith will not return next season as the Razorbacks’ coach. Long met with the interim coach a day after the Razorbacks’ season-ending 20-13 loss to LSU and told him the school ”would be making a change in leadership within our program.”
The former Michigan State and Louisville coach was hired away from Weber State in April to replace the fired Bobby Petrino and signed to a 10-month contract. Long says that once a new coach is hired Smith will be reassigned as a consultant through the end of his deal on Feb. 23, 2013.
”I have great respect for coach Smith, and I thank him for the sincere commitment he has shown our program,” Long said. ”He made a difficult decision in uncertain times to return from his alma mater to guide the young men in our football program, and I will always be grateful for his efforts.”
Arkansas (4-8, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) began the season ranked in the top 10, openly discussing the possibility of winning an SEC and national championship, but quickly fell out of the polls after a stunning loss to Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 8. The Razorbacks were 21-5 the last two seasons under Petrino, but their injury-depleted roster was unable to recapture that magic under Smith.
Last week’s loss at Mississippi State ensured Arkansas would not return to a bowl game this season for the first time since 2008, Petrino’s first season as coach. The Razorbacks stayed close with the No. 8 Tigers in their season finale on Friday before losing — finishing with the school’s lowest win total since 2005.
”It’s very difficult for me to believe that is not a bowl-eligible football team,” LSU coach Les Miles said following the win over Arkansas. ”Watching the talent there, [it's] very capable.”
Long said last month that Smith was still a candidate to remain with the Razorbacks, even after an early four-game losing streak crushed the Razorbacks’ preseason championship hopes. Long added that it would be apparent at the end of the season whether Smith was his choice, a question he answered Saturday.
In likely anticipation of his ouster, Smith spent much of his time following the LSU loss handing out hugs to players and reporters.
”I have enjoyed guiding this group, and I am extremely proud of how everyone in our program stuck together and showed tremendous character by competing throughout the season,” Smith said in a statement. ”Everyone on our staff has my appreciation as they all believed in our goals and stayed committed to the development of these young men.”
Smith said prior to the Mississippi State loss that he was optimistic of returning to Arkansas, where he was hired in April — just weeks after the scandal that erupted following Petrino’s motorcycle accident that involved his mistress.
The 64-year-old Smith had left the Razorbacks, where he was an assistant coach under Petrino for three seasons, just months earlier to become the head coach at his alma mater, Weber State. His welcoming and upbeat personality was a stark contrast to the monotone Petrino and was praised by Arkansas players.
They said Smith was the perfect person to replace Petrino, who was fired after it was revealed he had hired his mistress for a position in the athletic department and initially lied about her presence during their motorcycle accident.
However, Smith’s tenure got off to a rocky start following his revelation to the Associated Press in July that he would likely have to file for bankruptcy following land deals gone wrong in Kentucky. He filed in September — eventually revealing $40.7 million in debt — and came under fire from Arkansas fans for that and the mounting losses.
The Razorbacks, who led the SEC in total and scoring offense last season under Petrino, were 12th out of 14 SEC teams entering this week under Smith — averaging 24.5 points. The dropoff came despite the return of senior Tyler Wilson, who was the first-team All-SEC quarterback last season.
Wilson watched Smith’s eyes fill with tears earlier this week when discussing the likely end to his tenure at Arkansas, and the quarterback admitted the last six months ”have been tough” following Petrino’s firing. Wilson praised Smith for helping to keep the team together.
”He’s always got a smile,” Wilson said. ”Whether he’s feeling it deep down in there or not, it’s the way he expresses himself. And, you know, it touches everybody.”
Long’s next step becomes finding a new head coach to build on the recent success at the school. Long said all assistant coaches have the option to remain a part of the football staff pending the hiring of a new coach.
Whoever takes over will inherit a program that earned its first BCS berth two years ago in the Sugar Bowl. Arkansas also won the Cotton Bowl last season and finished ranked No. 5.
”Our new coach will be an individual who shares the passion for success our fans do, and who is willing to work relentlessly to achieve our goals,” Long said.
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