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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

In Smith, Arkansas Finds a 10-Month Solution

Forget what you think you know about John L. Smith, because to Arkansas, all that mattered was this: he was experienced, he was familiar with the roster, he was familiar with the program’s returning staff and he was available. Oh, and he was available to rent, not to buy; Smith is being leased by the university, which needed a solution, but wasn’t yet in the market for a permanent solution. Smith, who left Fayetteville after last season to take the head coaching job at Weber State, signed a 10-month, $850,000 contract with the school, which can now reenter the coaching pool in December or January, depending on when Smith’s one-year turn with the Razorbacks ends.

“I am extremely pleased to welcome coach John L. Smith back to the Razorback program as our new head football coach,” said Jeff Long in a university-issued release. “Coach Smith brings a wealth of football knowledge, B.C.S. conference head coaching experience, passion for the game and a close familiarity with the current team and coaching staff.

“I firmly believe that his selection is in the best interests of the young men in our program and will also best serve the mission of our football program and university in achieving success on and off the field in the upcoming season and in the long term.”

That few considered Smith’s candidacy more seriously — instead focusing on options like former offensive coordinator Garrick McGee — reflects just how focused most are on a four-year portion of his 40-year coaching career. Yes, it’s true that Smith’s teams at Michigan State got progressively worse from 2003-6, starting with eight wins before winning five, five and four over his last three seasons.

This is Smith most see, from the face-slapping episode — the first image most recall from his stint in East Lansing — to the loss after loss to Michigan and Notre Dame, each more painful than the last. Given a shot under the bright lights, Smith struggled.

But before that, Smith won at both Idaho and Utah State, which remains a one-two feat almost unmatched among his coaching peers. After that, Smith built Louisville into a Conference USA power, leaving in place a foundation for Bobby Petrino, his replacement in 2003. Smith can coach; his turn at Michigan State stands as the exception, not the rule.

What a role reversal: Smith left Petrino one heck of a team nine years ago, just as Petrino leaves Smith with a team primed for a title run heading into September. The team itself, which stressed the importance of continuity, should be elated — and they are, judging by many players’ immediate reaction to the hire.

Consider Arkansas’ perspective: Would you rather have Smith for 10 months or McGee — as an example — for the next four or five years? Both would provide the sort of continuity the university was looking for after Petrino’s departure, but Smith, unlike a coach like McGee, can be replaced on a permanent basis during the offseason.

If Arkansas likes McGee, he’ll be there in December. And by December, he’ll have a year of F.B.S. head coaching experience under his belt. If Arkansas liked McGee in April, it should like him even more after the end of this season — barring a disaster of a debut at U.A.B., though even that wouldn’t dissuade the Razorbacks.

Everything about Smith works. He’s here for the short term. He’s been around the block, both in the big picture — Louisville, Michigan State — and at Arkansas itself, where he spent the last three years as Petrino’s special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach. He knows the roster; the roster knows him.

He has a working relationship with the returning staff, including new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, who was Smith’s defensive backs coach at Michigan State from 2003-4, and new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who was his wide receivers coach at Louisville from 1998-99.

He can allow Arkansas to not miss a beat, even if the offense will miss Petrino’s ability to make in-game alterations. It’s only in the details that the Razorbacks’ approach will change; from above, the team that steps on the field in September will resemble in nearly every way the team that topped Kansas State in January’s Cotton Bowl.

It’s the continuity that Smith brings to the program that interests Arkansas, which is not swayed by Smith’s disappointing turn at Michigan State, or the fact that in accepting the school’s offer, Smith is leaving his alma mater, Weber State, in a lurch. Arkansas sees a coach who, for the next 10 months, gives the program its best chance at fulfilling its substantial promise; for the next 10 months, we should view Smith in the same way.

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