Arkansas rehires John L. Smith

  • ESPN.com news services | April 24, 2012

Arkansas will introduce John L. Smith as head coach Tuesday, replacing Bobby Petrino, who was fired earlier this month.

The school confirmed the hiring on Monday night. Smith signed a 10-month contract worth $850,000.

"I am tremendously excited to have this special opportunity to return to Arkansas and lead the Razorback football program," Smith said in a statement.

Smith coached with Petrino at Arkansas, Michigan State, Louisville and Utah State and was the special teams coach at Arkansas for three seasons before leaving four months ago to take over at Weber State.

Smith's return caps a whirlwind three weeks for a program reeling after 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.

Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long fired Petrino on April 10 and started looking for a new coach. In the end, he came back to Smith -- a person with head coaching experience and familiarly with the Razorbacks' staff, one who will allow that staff to remain intact for at least the 2012 season.

"When coach Smith first approached me about returning to Arkansas to serve in this position, he talked about his desire to be a part of the continued success of these student-athletes, this coaching staff and the Razorback program," Long said in a statement.

A Weber State alum, Smith leaves his alma mater without coaching a game for the FCS school. Weber State athletic director Jerry Bovee says the "timing of this announcement is problematic" but the school would move forward.

The 63-year-old Smith has a 132-86 record as a head coach, with stops at Idaho (53-21), Utah State (16-18), Louisville (41-21) and Michigan State (22-26). He was replaced at Louisville by Petrino after the 2002 season and fired by Michigan State after the 2006 season.

In 2003, he was honored as the Big Ten Coach of the Year after posting the most wins by a first-year coach in Michigan State history, finishing 8-4.

"(Smith) has been a part of the record-breaking success we have enjoyed in the past few seasons," Long said. "... 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."

Petrino issued a statement late Monday night through his agent, Russ Campbell.

"I think Jeff Long made a great hire," Petrino said. "While there were several outstanding internal candidates, John L. brings a lot of head coaching experience to the table that will help Arkansas' transition. He will unify the staff, the team and the Razorback fan base. I wish coach Smith, his staff and the Arkansas football team the very best."

Smith has been close to Petrino throughout his career and now will attempt to help his former staff and players through a difficult time.

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.

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, 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 (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 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, trusting him to lead Arkansas to a level of success it hadn't experienced since joining the SEC in 1992.

Arkansas now hopes to continue its recent good fortunes under the leadership of a familiar and comforting face in Smith.

"Throughout the spring, the assistant coaches and student-athletes have shown incredible focus and character, which we will use to build on as we work to achieve our goals for 2012," Smith said.

Information from ESPN college football reporter Joe Schad and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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