John L. Smith has long been considered to be one of the more colorful and unique characters in the college football coaching business. It's only fitting, then, that in early 2012 he found himself in one of college football's most unique situations.
In April of 2012, Smith was hired as interim head coach at the University of Arkansas, replacing the disgraced Bobby Petrino. Petrino, who racked up a 34-17 record during his time at Arkansas, was fired earlier that month by athletic director Jeff Long because of revelations regarding an improper relationship with a 25-year-old woman named Jessica Dorrell.
The firing of Petrino was hardly a shock, as most observers figured Long had little choice but to let the coach go, but the move did create a massive leadership vacuum in Fayetteville. Indeed, many had Petrino's Razorbacks pinned as a Top 5 team headed into the 2012 season, but with the coach gone, one had to wonder how the program could possibly move forward and meet the lofty expectations that fans had for the team.
Into this cauldron arrived Smith, a college coaching vet whose record shows that he's been both highly effective and highly volatile during his four decades in the business.
A graduate of Weber State, where he played linebacker and quarterback, Smith began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at his alma mater before spending the next two decades serving as a defensive assistant and coordinator at a series of mid-level schools--Montana, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington State. During those years he was tutored by Dennis Erickson, who would later go on to win two national championships at the University of Mimai.
In 1989, Smith got his first head coaching opportunity, at the University of Idaho. He took full advantage of it, too, guiding the Vandals to an impressive 53-21 record over the course of six seasons, including two Big Sky Conference championships. He also led his team to the Division I-AA semifinals in 1993.
Smith eventually left Idaho to take over at Utah State. Though the move made some sense, as the Aggies played up in Division I, Smith didn't enjoy quite the same level of success at Utah State has he had with the Vandals. After three years and just 16 wins, he shipped out for Louisville--the place where he would ultimately make his name in the coaching business, and catapult himself to bigger and better things.
Smith went 41-21 during his five-year run with the Cardinals, taking his teams to bowl games in each of those five seasons and twice winning Conference USA. In 2011, Smith assembled an impressive bunch that went 11-2, including 6-1 in the league, and knocked off BYU 28-10 in the Liberty Bowl.
After a step back the following season (the Cardinals finished 7-6), Smith made the jump into the bigtime, as he was hired by Michigan State of the Big Ten. It was his big break. But after a promising start, things didn't go well in East Lansing. Smith went 8-5 in his first season with the Spartans, good enough for fourth place in the Big Ten, but he would never again finish that high in the league. Smith saw his teams go 5-7 in 2004, 5-6 in 2005 and 4-8 in 2006. The results on the field were poor enough, but a couple of high-profile meltdowns also did damage to Smith's reputation. In 2005, after seeing Ohio State block a field goal and return it for a touchdown immediately before halftime, Smith threw his coaches under the bus while being interviewed by an ABC sideline reporter. And in 2006, the coach slapped himself in the face during a press conference.
Unsurprisingly, Michigan State did not renew Smith's contract after the 2006 season ended.
The coach took two seasons off from coaching, then re-emerged as an assistant at Arkansas under Petrino. After three seasons, he agreed to take over as head coach at Weber State. But only a few months later, Petrino was fired, and Arkansas came calling again. Smith agreed to take over as head coach, under strange circumstances--though head coach in name, he was given only a 10-month contract. What he can do during those 10 months remains to be seen.