FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — A person familiar with the decision says Arkansas is bringing back John L. Smith on an interim basis next year to replace Bobby Petrino.
Smith, an assistant who left the Razorbacks after last season to become the head coach at Weber State, is returning on a one-year appointment, according to the person who spoke Monday on condition of anonymity because the school had not made its decision public.
The person also said athletic director Jeff Long felt Smith would “unite” all the current Razorbacks coaches.
Smith was also a head coach at Michigan State and Louisville, where he was replaced by Petrino after the 2006 season. He served as the special teams and outside linebackers coach at Arkansas for the 2009-10 seasons under Petrino, who he had worked with at four different schools in all.
Petrino was fired April 10 for failing to disclose his relationship and $20,000 in gifts to a woman he later hired as his assistant. The affair was revealed by an April 1 motorcycle crash on a rural road southwest of Fayetteville and the woman, Jessica Dorrell, has resigned.
Petrino was hired to replace Houston Nutt on Dec. 11, 2007, famously leaving the Atlanta Falcons before the end of the NFL season. He has built the program into a Southeastern Conference and national power and many expect the Razorbacks to make a championship run in 2012.
The 63-year-old Smith leaves Weber State without every coaching a game for the FCS school, his alma mater.
He has a 132-86 record as a head coach with the Spartans, Cardinals as well as at Idaho and Utah State. He was the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2003 after posting the most wins by a first-year coach in Michigan State history, finishing 8-4. He was 22-26 overall with the Spartans and was 41-21 in five seasons at Louisville, including five straight bowl appearances.
He will provide a familiar face for the Razorbacks after three weeks of turmoil.
Arkansas was 11-2 last season, with its only losses coming to national champion Alabama and runner-up LSU. Arkansas finished the season No. 5, its best season-ending ranking since 1977, and returns Heisman Trophy hopefuls at quarterback (Tyler Wilson) and running back (Knile Davis).
For all of the success and expectations, however, Petrino’s tenure with the Razorbacks will likely be more remembered for how it ended.
The 51-year-old former coach suffered four broken ribs, a cracked vertebra and numerous abrasions to his face following the accident on his Harley-Davidson with Dorrell along for the ride. Petrino failed to tell his boss about the presence of the 25-year-old Dorrell until the police report was released.
Long put Petrino on paid leave and fired him less than a week later. The married father of four later chose not to appeal his firing, meaning he walked away with none of the $18 million buyout due in his contract along with his annual salary of more than $3.5 million.
Despite his failings away from the field, Petrino was nothing short of spectacular in his four seasons at Arkansas. He was 34-17 overall, finishing 5-7 his first season in 2008. That season followed a 10-year run by Nutt, who left for Ole Miss after the 2007 season.
Nutt’s final days with the Razorbacks were marred by rumors of turmoil within his coaching staff, fueled by the departure of former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to Tulsa after the 2006 season. Malzahn later won a national championship as the offensive coordinator at Auburn before being hired in December as the head coach at Arkansas State, and his departure also led to the transfers of his former high school stars — wide receiver Damian Williams and quarterback Mitch Mustain, both who left for USC.
The upheaval led to fans flying “Fire Nutt” banners before games during the 2007 seasons, and it left the fan base fractured before and after he left for the Rebels.
Petrino’s hiring brought that base back together. The school looked past his history of job-hopping in trusting him to lead Arkansas to a level of success it hadn’t experienced since joining the SEC in 1992.