FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas is bringing back John L. Smith to replace Bobby Petrino.
Smith, who left the Razorbacks after last season to become the coach at Weber State, signed a 10-month, $850,000 contract and will also be eligible for other incentives.The person also said athletic director Jeff Long felt Smith would "unite" all the current Razorbacks coaches.
"I am tremendously excited to have this special opportunity to return to Arkansas and lead the Razorback football program," Smith said in a statement.
An Idaho Falls native, Smith was also a head coach at Michigan State and Louisville, where he was replaced by Petrino after the 2006 season. He served as the special teams and outside linebackers coach at Arkansas for the 2009-10 seasons under Petrino, who he had worked with at four different schools in all.
The 63-year-old Smith leaves Weber State without ever coaching a game for the FCS school, his alma mater. Smith was hired as Weber State's coach in December, played linebacker and quarterback for Weber State College from 1968 to 1971 and began his coaching career as a grad assistant at the school a year later.
“We knew when we hired John L. as our head football coach that we were getting a high-profile coach that we felt would move our program forward”, said Weber State Director of Athletics Jerry Bovee, who is in Indianapolis attending NCAA committee meetings. “Obviously, the timing of this announcement is problematic but at this point we are going to move forward in making decisions that are in the best interest of our program.”
A decision regarding the head coaching position at Weber State will be announced soon.
"It's just part of the profession," WSU offensive coordinator Matt Hammer said Monday after meeting with Smith and the rest of the coaching staff at Stewart Stadium. "Coach has a great opportunity to be part of a great program, and have a chance to be really good. Financially, the whole deal, you can’t blame him. All of us would do the same thing. It’s just crazy."
He has a 132-86 record as a head coach with the Spartans, Cardinals as well as at 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. He was 22-26 overall with the Spartans and was 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 fired April 10 for failing to disclose his relationship and $20,000 in gifts to a woman he later hired as his assistant. The affair was revealed by an April 1 motorcycle crash on a rural road southwest of Fayetteville and the woman, Jessica Dorrell, has resigned.
Petrino was hired to replace Houston Nutt on Dec. 11, 2007, famously leaving the Atlanta Falcons before the end of the NFL season. He has 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 (Knile 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 former 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 in trusting him to lead Arkansas to a level of success it hadn't experienced since joining the SEC in 1992.
Word of Smith’s hire spread quickly 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.”
“He will enable Jeff to look for a coach,” the person said. “He will be respected by the coaches and keep the coaching staff intact. Jeff found that it was really hard to get a coach that he wanted right now. Nobody would really take a look at it. There were some who said they might be interested but not at this time because the new season is just around the corner.”
Standard-Examiner staff writer Roy Burton and Kurt Voigt of the AP contributed to this report.