FAYETTEVILLE — John L. Smith is no stranger to adventures. The coach, after all, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and has jumped out of airplanes.
So when former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino was fired on April 10, the 63-year-old Smith saw another challenge he simply couldn’t ignore: helping Arkansas work through a tumultuous time.
“If there is a door open, walk through it,” Smith said. “If there’s a window open, jump out of it. I guess I’ve always been a little that way.
“My wife said this is just another one of your adventures.”
Arkansas introduced the energetic and eccentric Smith as its next football coach Tuesday, welcoming him back to a program he left last winter after spending three years as an assistant on Petrino’s staff.
He resigned as Weber State’s head coach after just five months — a decision that has been met with plenty of criticism from outside the program — to sign to a 10-month agreement that will pay him $850,000.
The terms of the agreement offer no guarantees for the future. Smith doesn’t expect it, saying the season will dictate what happens.
He said his only concern, and only reason for leaving his alma mater, was trying to help guide Arkansas to a championship now.
“Our expectations are the same,” Smith said. “Nothing’s going to slow down. In fact, we’re going to speed up.
“Our expectations are that we’re going to go ahead and we’re going to battle and fight for a national title. It was that way when I walked in the door three years ago and it’s going to continue to be that way.”
Smith brings 18 years of head coaching experience to Arkansas, going 132-86 at Idaho, Utah State, Louisville and Michigan State. His last stop as a head coach came with the Spartans, where he was named the Big Ten’s coach of the year after his first season in 2003 and was fired in 2006.
He was out of coaching for two seasons when Petrino hired him to join his Arkansas staff. Smith, who said he has not spoken to Petrino since the coach was fired, was placed in charge of special teams. He worked in that role until last December, when he left for Weber State.
Smith said leaving his alma mater after four months was the toughest decision of his life, but Weber State athletic director Jerry Bovee and players understood it was one he had to make. He also added his wife, Diana, ultimately had the deciding call in returning to the Razorbacks.
“I said, ‘This decision’s yours,’” Smith said. “She said, ‘Here’s the deal. You’re going back to people that love you. You’re going back to a team that is a good football team and you have a chance to fight for a national championship.’ She said, ‘This might be the only chance you have left.’ So she said, ‘You’re going back’ and here I am.”
While part of his desire to come back was to help the program as it wades through the mud left by Petrino’s motorcycle scandal, Smith also admitted there’s personal pride involved. He wants redemption after the rocky end to his run as a head coach at Michigan State in 2006.
“Yes,” Smith said of seeking redemption. “The answer is: Yes.”
So he is back with an Arkansas program that has been searching for stability since athletic director Jeff Long fired Petrino on April 10.
Smith is familiar with the players on campus after working with the Razorbacks the past three seasons, playing a role in the 21-5 run the past two seasons. He’ll bring a different personality to the position after four years under Petrino, who was regarded as a rigid disciplinary.
Running back Knile Davis said it will be a welcome change.
“You don’t have to step on everybody’s neck to get something out of them,” Davis said. “We know how to work. We know how to win. We know how to prepare to win games. It’s up to us. It’s on the seniors. It’s on the leadership of the team to keep the team right.”
Quarterback Tyler Wison said there’s no doubt the Razorbacks will play for Smith as they try to build on their successes under Petrino.
“Guys love him,” Wilson said. “Guys are going to want to play for him. Guys are going to want to take the field, proving to everybody that we made a great decision, great hire as head football coach.”
Smith also has worked with eight of Arkansas’ nine remaining assistant coaches, including coordinators Paul Petrino and Paul Haynes. Running backs coach Tim Horton and defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell were on hand Tuesday, while the rest of the staff was on the road recruiting.
Smith said he received texts from Arkansas’ coaches telling him to “get your tail back here to help with the battle.” He said it touched him, considering some were being considered for the interim position.
“All of us will enjoy working for him,” Horton said. “He’s very easy to talk with and not afraid to have an opinion and that opinion is usually respected. So I think for all of us, I think he’ll be very positive.”
Smith’s appointment also helps Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long strategically, giving him more time to evaluate the head coaching position to find a full-time leader over the next several months.
He didn’t rule Smith out of the long-term equation when asked Tuesday, but said his search for the program’s coach after the season would continue. Long did admit Smith originally wasn’t in consideration until the coach expressed his interest with a phone call to the school.
But Long ultimately decided to hire Smith on Sunday.
“Certainly, the timing and specific circumstances of this process carry some real challenges for us,” Long said. “Every search is unique, but this one was especially so. ... There’s no question in my mind that this is the best decision for this team for the 2012 season.”
Smith arrived in Fayetteville late Monday night and will begin working immediately. Horton said the plan was to call recruits Tuesday night as the Razorbacks try to restore order with Smith in place.
Head coaches are not allowed to go out on the road during the spring evaluation period, but Smith said he’ll still have plenty of work to do as he begins his new adventure as Arkansas’ head coach.
“Everything’s in place here,” Smith said. “You’ve got a good football team. We’ve got the best fans in the world. We’ve got great coaches.
“Let’s make it a special year.”