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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

Smith Is Ready for a One-Year “Fight”

For starters, John L. Smith’s introductory press conference — his reintroduction, actually — had the assembled media presence looking forward to this summer’s media days. You can add Smith to the list of SEC coaches who, when given the opportunity, create must-see TV: Miles, Dooley, Spurrier and all have a new partner, and the league becomes even more interesting from Sunday through Friday. But what’s left to be asked? Smith hit on all the main points during his press conference, candidly answering questions on how he reconnected with Arkansas, how he views his short-term task, what he’ll change, if anything, and whether this will be his last go-round in major college football.

Smith confirmed Monday’s report that he reached out to Arkansas, and not vice versa, in the days and weeks following Bobby Petrino’s dismissal. Though Smith was then employed by Weber State, he — and his wife — both felt it would be foolish not to inquire with athletic director Jeff Long about the opportunity to be named Petrino’s successor.

“She’s actually the one that made the decision to come here,” Smith said of his wife. “She said, ‘You’re going to people that love you. You’re going back to a team that is a good football team and you have a chance to fight for a national championship. You’ve done this your entire life and this might be the only chance you have left. You’re going back.’”

The last point clearly echoed for Smith, who spent the last three season as an assistant under Petrino after being out of football from 2007-8. While Weber State, his alma mater, gave Smith another shot at being a head coach, that position pales in comparison to the top spot at Arkansas; as noted by his wife, Smith inherits a team with realistic national title hopes.

And a step back into the limelight gives Smith a shot at rebuilding a brand tarnished by his four-year run at Michigan State — where, before today, most recalled Smith as the coach who lost to Michigan, lost to Notre Dame and, after a loss to the Irish in 2006, slapped himself across the face during a post-game press conference meltdown.

Asked if he’s viewing Arkansas as a shot at coaching redemption, Smith replied: “Yes. The answer is yes.” Smith’s comment reinforced the idea that he carries a chip on his shoulder due to the way Michigan State has defined his 40-year career, which outside of East Lansing involves successful turns at Idaho, Utah State and Louisville.

Smith’s affection for Arkansas is mutual, though in a slightly different vein. Smith views the Razorbacks as a platform: from here, if all goes well, Smith might impress the university to the point where he lands the full-time job, or do well enough where another B.C.S. conference program would be interested in hiring him during the offseason.

Arkansas views Smith as the right man for this specific job — a coach able to maintain the Petrino-era standard — but not the right fit as a permanent solution. “There’s no question in my mind that this was the best decision for the 2012 season,” said Long, who added that Smith’s shortened contract would give the university “the time necessary to identify the right coach for the future.”

In turn, Smith said that he’ll help Arkansas with the “fight” that lies ahead: taking on Alabama, L.S.U., the rest of the SEC and other borderline title contenders with a team built and primed for a double-digit win season. He won’t change a thing, beyond placing his own imprimatur — a coaching style that lies a bit outside the box — on a roster that publicly voiced its desire for continuity, not wholesale change.

“I see my role as a mentor [and] advisor,” he said. Smith will let his coordinators, well, coordinate. He has a working relationship with new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes, both of whom previously worked under Smith at Louisville and Michigan State, respectively.

The system won’t change. Tyler Wilson knows this, which might be why he — as well as Knile Davis — were present at Smith’s introduction. How the Razorbacks approach each game on the schedule won’t change; all that will change is that Smith’s voice will replace Petrino’s, and the change there is that the former’s gregarious and candid personality stands in direct contrast to the latter’s tight-lipped reticence.

So Arkansas has found its coach for 2012, with Long clearly stating that when it comes to Smith, it’ll be one-and-done return to the program. It’s a fair trade: Smith gets to take the wheel of a “top 10 program,” in his words, while Arkansas lands the continuity it was looking for in what Long termed a “unique” coaching search.

“Only the season is going to dictate what happens after this,” said Smith. He, and Arkansas, have all eyes on the prize. After the wildest month in program history, the Razorbacks can return to the task at hand: the SEC West, the SEC at large and a run to the B.C.S.

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  1. I understand Arkansas didn’t have anytime and few real options, but from a recruiting standpoint I just cannot see this “temporary” hiring as a positive. How does Smith and the “interim” Hog assistants walk into a recruits home and sell Arkansas to that recruit and parents when everyone knows they may not even be around in 10 months?

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