Arkansas' Smith as unpredictable as ever
Posted: August 13, 2012 at 3:08 p.m.
FAYETTEVILLE Travis Swanson wasn't sure what to expect from John L. Smith.
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 teammates.
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 whatsoever."
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 ultimate coach."
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 reporter.
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 predecessor.
"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 said.
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 seasons.
"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 level."
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 coaching.
"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 times."