HOOVER, Ala. — Similar to three months ago, when the invertebrate Bobby Petrino took his young wench (“student-athlete development coordinator”) for a mid-life crisis spin on his motorcycle and got run over by the karma train, Arkansas is feeling the pain for its missteps.
When Petrino was fired – not because Arkansas suits really cared that he cheated on his wife or even lied to their face, but rather to protect themselves from litigation for playing footsie with a subordinate – they hired former assistant John L. Smith.
This is the same John L. Smith who agreed to take the job as a temp (10-month contract) even though he had just left for the Weber State job four months earlier. So much for loyalty. In that sense, at least, this should be a seamless transition from Petrino.
Smith is 63. He’s entertaining. He’s the kind of guy who would watch his house burn down and suddenly break into vaudeville: “Hah! I told you my wife couldn’t cook!” He had several media members laughing at SEC Media Days on Wednesday. (Question: Would you like to be the Arkansas coach for more than one year? Answer: “Certainly. Do I look stupid? Wait, don’t answer that.”)
You want Smith warming up the crowd before the real comics come out. You just don’t really want him coaching a potential top-10 football team.
Prepare for the crash. And the laughter.
This is what happens when a college athletic program hitches its wagon to the morally bankrupt. Athletic director Jeff Long went behind the Falcons’ back and hired Petrino. They gave him everything he wanted. They played dumb when he hired his mistress for a legitimate job posting. They asked only for wins in return. In the end, they got a mangled Harley and national humiliation. (How Long still has a job for enabling this mess is remarkable.)
Smith hasn’t been a head coach for six years. He went 14-21 in his last three years at Michigan State. He got the Weber State job because, well, it’s Weber State and he went to school there.
As if overcoming the emotional trauma of Petrino’s clumsy philandering and firing isn’t enough, Smith is trying to function as an SEC head coach while basically suffering from financial ruin.
Seriously. He admits that a series of failed real estate ventures likely will lead to him to declare bankruptcy soon. That might explain why he was willing to take a U-turn out of Weber State and grab the short-term job for $850,000.
I had a few questions for Smith.
One in particular.
Do you ride a motorcycle?
Answer (laughter): “No. I’d fall off and hurt myself.”
Me: You mean like your predecessor?
Answer: “Oh. Yeah.”
We know the man doesn’t have much of a conscience. He worked for Petrino. But did he have any problems leaving Weber State right after he got there?
“Well, you’re leaving your alma mater and you know people gave you the opportunity – yeah, it’s not fun,” he said. “But you weigh it, and the scales weighed heavier to leaving.”
He disclosed that Petrino phoned him last week. They spoke for up to 30 minutes. But Smith declined afterward to discuss particulars about the conversation — “Coaching, life, family” — but he expects Petrino to get back into coaching. He said the two remain friends.
So when you heard about the motorcycle accident, the girl and everything, were you disappointed with him as a man?
Answer: “Uhh … No.”
It gets better. Here’s Smith, somewhat, on his philosophy on life.
“Like we tell players, ‘You’re not a regular student. You can’t go out and do something stupid.’ Believe me, we all do stupid things. We just try not to be overly stupid.”
I’m feeling really good about the Alabama game right about now, how about you?
Smith is not new to adventures. He has run with the bulls in Pamplona. He climbed part of Mount Kilimanjaro. He has jumped out of an airplane (with a parachute). So in his mind, or out of his mind, taking the Arkansas job is just the next logical crazy step.
“My granddad came to this county when he was 12 years old,” Smith said. “His folks put him in a boat and said, ‘Go to America.’ What kind of adventure is that?”
One that inspires more good feelings than this one.
By Jeff Schultz
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