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Arkansas' Smith, Assistants Bring Stability to Razorbacks' Chaotic Offseason


Nine days and counting until kickoff. How are you holding up?

Me? I’m getting a bit antsy to tell you the truth. It’s been too long since Arkansas administered that 29-16 whipping Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, and I’m ready for some football.

As far as I’m concerned Sept. 1 can’t get here soon enough. It’s been a brutal off season for all concerned with the Razorbacks program. Frankly, there hasn’t been a lot of good news for Hog fans since the Cotton Bowl.

The revelation of Bobby Petrino’s affair, his improper hiring tactics and his subsequent dismissal as the Razorbacks’ head coach still seems as outlandish to me today as it did back in March, but it wasn’t a fantasy or even a nightmare. Just the hard truth.

This Bobby isn’t going to come walking out of a steamy shower like a latter day Patrick Duffy in the infamous jump-the-shark episode of "Dallas" that re-introduced the younger Ewing son back to classic ’80s nighttime soap opera after his death in the show’s previous season.

There is no reset button. Bobby’s gone, and he ain’t coming back.

Just who will be the Hogs’ next head coach is uncertain, but unfortunately that question will hang over the Razorback program throughout this season. Every Razorback game will be televised this season and that topic will be brought each week. Whoever breaks that story will get the scoop of the season.

One hopes that we fans can push it to the back of our minds enough to enjoy this season and not think back to what might have been or forward to what will be.

For that to happen, the Razorbacks themselves will have to make it a non-issue by their play on the field.
Interestingly, Petrino’s dismissal hasn’t seemed to be that big of a deal for the players, who fought through a very shaky time during spring practice when everything was still up in the air.

Say what you will about John L. Smith, his personality and his coaching history or ability, but his hire by Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long on a 10-month contract has brought a sense of stability to a situation that was anything but prior to his introduction as interim head coach.

That in and of itself is amazing and speaks well of his leadership ability.

Of course, the Hogs really haven’t been tested yet either. I’m not talking about physically. There is no doubt the Razorbacks paid the price in the summer heat to prepare for the season, but for college athletes the physical nature of the game isn’t the obstacle; the mental aspect that is the toughest part.

So far, it’s been easy for everyone to pull together and get on board, all for one and one for all. But my big question is what happens when adversity strikes?

We just don’t know.

There seems to be excellent leadership on this team from players like Tyler Wilson, Tank Wright, Cobi Hamilton, Travis Swanson and others. Honestly, I believe the players will "hang on to that rope," as Houston Nutt used to say, as long as the assistant coaches do.

From all reports, the staff is all in. They know just like Smith that they are coaching for their future whether they are back again at Arkansas next year or not.

Everyone expects the Razorbacks to be good this season. While we fans may think Arkansas deserves a better ranking, they are ranked 10th in both national polls, which is the highest in more than 20 years. Ken Hatfield’s final team opened the season at ninth in 1989. Considering what went down in the spring, that’s respect.

Heck, the blow-hard ESPN instigator Skip Bayless predicted the Hogs will win the BCS title the other day. I remember the days when he used to like to tweak Texas readers by praising the Razorbacks when he worked for the Dallas Morning News.

That being said, opportunistic writers and analysts will be just as happy to kick the chair from underneath the Hogs if they struggle as they are to tout them if they win big.

If the season starts going south, like anyone else with a lick of sense in this economic environment, the assistant coaches will be looking out for the next job as well as the next opponent, and if that happens, players will sense it and begin to look out for themselves, as well.

I have no idea what Long’s plans are concerning the Razorbacks next head coach. For all I know, he may have a deal in place and have the next man waiting in the wings.

But if I were in his shoes, I’d think long and hard about retaining Smith and doing whatever is reasonably possible to keep this coaching staff intact.

Folks, considering what happened this spring, Arkansas’ football program could have ended up in the biggest mess we’ve seen since Hatfield left the program in dire straits just days before national signing day in 1990.

Many have credited Long for holding it together, and I give him his due, but Smith and the assistants are the ones who have kept the ship on course.

If I were Long and the Hogs were undefeated when they return from College Station, Texas, on Sept. 29 — big if there — I would seize the moment, announce Smith as head coach and lock down the assistants for the next two years.

I know the idea may sound crazy, but it would wipe out all the uncertainty for the coaches, underclass players and fans. It would set a ball rolling for recruiting and pave a way for Paul Petrino to take on more and more responsibility and work himself into the head coaching position down the line. Most importantly, though, it would allow everyone to focus on the season instead of wondering about the future, like we’ve been doing ever since April Fool’s Day.