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Gans: Arkansas made poor choice hiring Smith (April 27)

Sam Gans | Friday, April 27, 2012

8-5, 5-7, 5-6 and 4-8. The four preceding sets of numbers were the records for the Michigan State football program from 2003-2006.

The Spartans were led those years by coach John L. Smith. And now, Smith is back in the BCS head coaching ranks. After coaching special teams at Arkansas from 2009-2011, Smith left to become head coach at his alma mater Weber State this offseason.

When Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino was fired for his now infamous scandal, Smith headed back to Arkansas, this time as head coach. He was introduced to the media by Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long on April 24.

The Razorbacks made the wrong decision.

The line of thinking behind the hire probably was that Smith is familiar with the program after his three seasons there, unlike Taver Johnson, an offseason assistant hire who was briefly the interim coach for two weeks after Petrino’s firing. Additionally, Johnson has zero head coaching experience. Smith’s knowledge of Arkansas and head coaching experience made him the choice.

It sounds like sound logic on the surface, but it fails.

Smith has had success as a head coach before at non-BCS stops, including Idaho, Utah State and Louisville (which was in Conference USA during Smith’s tenure). But there’s a difference between winning at non-BCS schools and winning in one of the “Power Six” conferences.

Some coaches have the ability to take success at lower levels of college football and translate it to the BCS level.
Some don’t. And Smith’s failure with the Spartans shows he doesn’t have it. It wasn’t the program he was at, either. After making just one bowl in four seasons under Smith, Michigan State has gone bowling each of the past five years under Mark Dantonio and came just short of the Rose Bowl last year.

As big of a step up as the Big Ten is from non-BCS conferences, the SEC is an even greater challenge. If Smith couldn’t succeed at Michigan State, how will he in the best conference in college football?

There is a reason he was out of a coaching job for three years after his time at Michigan State. There is a reason that when he reentered coaching, it was not as a head coach or even a coordinator, but as a special teams coach. There is a reason he is more famous for both a meltdown halftime interview during the Spartans’ 2005 loss at Ohio State and slapping himself in the face following a 2006 collapse against Notre Dame (both great YouTube clips) than he is for his coaching ability.

Of course, Arkansas may be thinking the 2012 season is now lost without Petrino and hired Smith to be a temporary solution. After all, he only signed a 10-month contract. There will likely be a search for a permanent coach after the season, and Smith is simply leading Arkansas through the turmoil.

But if the year is now a throwaway – which would be a shame for a team that’s widely regarded as one of the top 15 in the country – then why not just go with Johnson and see if he’s a potential permanent option? On the opposite end of the spectrum, if the Razorbacks are seriously trying to contend for an SEC championship, then again why not choose Johnson? Smith has shown he cannot do it. Maybe Johnson could have.

We will never know now. What we do know is the fate of the Razorbacks this year is in the hands of a man who hasn’t been responsible for anything on a football field besides special teams in the past five years. And the last time he was, the results were disastrous.

Good luck, Arkansas.

Contact Sam Gans at sgans@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.