FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Eager to move on from the Bobby Petrino scandal, Arkansas announced Monday that popular former assistant John L. Smith will return as head football coach of the Razorbacks next season.
Smith, a former head coach at Idaho, left the Razorbacks after last season to become the head coach at Weber State. He will be formally introduced today. The school said Smith signed a 10-month, $850,000 contract and will also be eligible for other incentives.
“I am tremendously excited to have this special opportunity to return to Arkansas and lead the Razorback football program,” Smith, 63, said in a statement.
Smith’s return caps a whirlwind three weeks for an Arkansas program reeling in the wake of revelations of an affair by Petrino with a woman, Jessica Dorrell, he later hired as his assistant. Petrino also once gave Dorrell $20,000 in gifts – all which was revealed following an April 1 motorcycle crash on a rural road southwest of Fayetteville. Dorrell has since resigned.
Hiring Smith allows Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long to take his time to find a permanent head coach. Petrino’s firing came during spring practice for much of the college football world, a time when few coaches were willing to leave their current positions for the unknown – even for a top-five team that already had a coaching staff in place.
“(Smith) has been a part of the record-breaking success we have enjoyed in the past few seasons,” Long said in a statement. “… I also have a tremendous amount of confidence in our assistant coaches and believe that under coach Smith’s leadership they will be able to continue to flourish in the current roles.”
Smith was a head coach at Michigan State and Louisville, where he was replaced by Petrino after the 2002 season. He served as the special teams and outside linebackers coach at Arkansas for the 2009-11 seasons under Petrino; the two have worked together at four schools.
Word of Smith’s hire spread quickly Monday and some of the players responded with their approval on Twitter.
“The happiest day of my life,” Razorbacks running back Knile Davis tweeted. “Hearing that John L. Smith is coming back to (Fayetteville) to (be) our head coach.”
The players were informed of Smith’s hiring at an afternoon team meeting, though they were instructed to avoid talking with media members outside the Broyles Athletic Center afterward. Still, their smiles told the story of their feelings.
Smith’s easygoing demeanor will be a big change from Petrino, who was fired April 10 by Long.
Smith has a 132-86 record as a head coach with the Spartans, Cardinals, 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. But things went downhill fast in East Lansing, Mich., and he finished 22-26 overall.
He went 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.
Petrino was hired to replace Houston Nutt on Dec. 11, 2007, famously leaving the Atlanta Falcons before the end of the NFL season. He built the program into a Southeastern Conference and national power and many expect the Razorbacks to make a championship run in 2012.
Arkansas was 11-2 last season, its 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 (Davis).