FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — John L. Smith knew Arkansas as well as anyone, had a vested interest in seeing the program's recent run of success continue. The chance to help clean up the mess Bobby Petrino made was too much for Smith to pass up.
Arkansas announced Smith's hiring as head coach Monday, bring back the popular former assistant who left four months ago to take over at Weber State. Smith will be formally introduced Tuesday, and the school said he signed a 10-month, $850,000 contract and will also be eligible for other incentives.
"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'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 his 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.
Hiring Smith also allows Long to take his time in finding a long-term solution at head coach. Petrino's firing came during spring practice for much of the college football world, a time when few coaches were willing to leave their current positions for the unknown – even for a top-five team that already had a coaching staff in place.
"(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."
Smith was a head coach at Michigan State and Louisville, where he was replaced by Petrino after the 2002 season. He served as the special teams and outside linebackers coach at Arkansas for the 2009-11 seasons under Petrino; the two have worked together at four different schools in all.
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.
Those smiles were shared by former Arkansas players who played for Smith, including current New England Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett.
"John is a great guy and a great coach," Mallett tweeted. "I love it."
Smith's easygoing demeanor will be a big change from Petrino.
The 63-year-old Smith leaves Weber State without coaching a game for the FCS school, his alma mater.
Weber State athletic director Jerry Bovee said the "timing of this announcement is problematic" but the school would move forward. Bovee did not immediately name an interim coach.
"Wow, just when you think the pieces to the puzzle are all in place, something big happens to create chaos and the picture changes," Bovee tweeted. "Ouch!"
Smith 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. But things went downhill fast in East Lansing, Mich., and he finished 22-26 overall with the Spartans.
He went 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 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 Petrino 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 minutes before 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. His annual salary averaged 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.