Arkansas coaching opportunity was too good to for John L. Smith to turn down

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

John L. Smith was waffling over the weekend.

Take the offer to coach Arkansas? Or stay at the job he'd just accepted a few months earlier at Weber State?

Smith, a 63-year-old football lifer, was racked by indecision and stress. Could he really leave his alma mater before coaching a single game? How bad would the backlash be in Odgen? How dicey would the situation be in Fayetteville?

When his wife, Diana, broke into tears, Smith's choice was clear.

"You've worked your entire life to maybe one day have an opportunity to coach a team with a chance to win a title," she told her husband. "Realize where you are in your career. You're not going to get another chance.

"This is what you're going to do: You're going to take that job."

So he did. In a surreal twist to Smith's career path, he went from the obscurity of Odgen and an FCS program to the caldron of the SEC and a national top-10 team.

"It's been a whirlwind," Smith told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday.

Smith understands the criticism he has taken for bailing on his alma mater before even coaching a game there. He knows it looks bad. But he said Weber State athletic director Jim Bovee was understanding, and so were the players he spoke with.

Just one thing Smith would like to know from the folks bashing him: How many others in his position would leave a melt-into-retirement job for a last chance to work very near the pinnacle of your profession? At a place where you just spent three years, as opposed to four months on the new job?

"If you ask any of them, even the ones who feel jilted, put yourselves in the same situation," Smiths said. "I bet 90 percent would say, 'Yeah, I'd take that.' "

Especially with the team Smith is inheriting. Arkansas was 11-2 last season, returns most of its offensive weapons and will get SEC West rivals LSU and Alabama at home this season. This is a win-now opportunity.

"As a team, as coaches, we expect to be real good," Smith said. "We stay healthy, we get things to break right, the schedule is in our favor, we can win an SEC championship. It's not out of the realm. We're talking about legitimate expectations. We better have high expectations."

Smith didn't get to choose the timing of this thing – nobody at Arkansas did. When Bobby Petrino blew up his career by lying about his early-April motorcycle accident with the mistress he'd hired to his staff, there was no easy way out of that swamp.

First, athletic director Jeff Long had to make the hard call to fire the successful and popular Petrino. Then he had to figure out how to save a promising 2012 season without compromising the long-term future of the program.

The solution – hire a guy with head-coaching experience and knowledge of the program but without an original commitment of longer than 10 months – was almost Solomonic. But it didn't present itself until some members of Petrino's staff called Smith to suggest he go after the job. Smith then reached out through back channels to Arkansas to declare his candidacy.

[Related: Pat Forde: Arkansas hit a home run hiring John L. Smith as football coach]

Smith knew the whole staff, both from his years as an assistant to Petrino in Fayetteville and before that when many of them worked for John L. at Louisville, Utah State or Idaho. And there will be no familial awkwardness with offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, Bobby's younger brother, who has known Smith for ages.

Smith likened Paul Petrino to "a son or younger brother. We truly love his wife and family."

Relations with Bobby Petrino may be trickier. John L. says he has reached out to Bobby, whom he also has known and worked with for many years, but has not heard back.

"I'm hoping that happens real soon," Smith said.

The challenge of coaching in the SEC, of taking a talented team into competition against the likes of Nick Saban and Les Miles – that has an allure for a guy who spent most of his career fixing up damaged lower-tier programs. But so does the opportunity to adjust the record after a dismal four years at Michigan State.

When Smith left Louisville for Michigan State in 2003, he'd had 13 winning seasons in 14 years as a college head coach. Then he took a team that went 4-8 the year before his arrival and transformed it into an 8-5 outfit.

But what followed was a three-year collapse that tainted Smith's legacy. He went 14-21 in those three seasons, resulting in his firing. Just like that, a guy who had been Mr. Fix It was labeled the erratic rube who couldn't handle life in the Big Ten. That has gnawed at Smith's innards since the day he was dumped in 2006.

"I always said to myself, 'That's not the way I'm going to go out,' " Smith said. "I want a chance again. I'm going to write this ending differently."

This is an ending nobody saw coming. But when the opportunity to coach a loaded Arkansas team crazily presented itself – an opportunity that appeared to have passed by this coaching lifer once and for all – John L. Smith had to take it. Now we'll see what he can do with it.

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