FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas center Travis Swanson knew he was going to be bombarded by the question Friday night. It was inevitable after the 2012 season ended with a 20-13 loss to LSU in Razorback Stadium.
But the junior, a team captain and three-year starter, said he’s no different than everyone else. He’s waiting and wondering what’s next for the Razorbacks.
“Everyone wants to know what’s the next step,” Swanson said. “But it’s not up to any of us. We all know that. We’re all just sitting here waiting for people to make decisions. When they tell us where to be, we’ll be there.”
Arkansas began an offseason filled with uncertainty Saturday, a day after 2012 ended well short of expectations. What’s next for assistant coaches who spent countless hours breaking down film and working with players the past several months remains to be seen. The same goes for players who have poured plenty of blood and sweat into Arkansas’ success on the field the past few years.
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long did take the first official step to change Saturday morning, telling coach John L. Smith that Arkansas was moving in another direction.
It was no surprise, considering the Razorbacks struggled under Smith’s watch, finishing with their worst record (4-8) since going 3-8 in 1990.
“I have great respect for Coach Smith and I thank him for the sincere commitment he has shown our program,” Long said in the statement. “He made a difficult decision in uncertain times to return from his alma mater to guide the young men in our football program, and I will always be grateful for his efforts.
“I would also like to express my gratitude to our assistant football coaching staff, and our support staff. They have shown remarkable professionalism and a true commitment to the student-athletes in our program. They demonstrated great character in maintaining their commitment to our program.”
Smith left Weber State to return to Arkansas in April after Bobby Petrino was fired. He signed a 10-month contract with no guarantees regarding the future, but had hoped for a chance to earn the position long-term after the 2012 season.
Those hopes dimmed after Arkansas lost to Louisiana-Monroe in early September.
“I am very grateful to Chancellor (David) Gearhart and Jeff Long for the opportunity they gave me to return to the University of Arkansas and coach this football team,” Smith said in the statement released Saturday. “I have enjoyed guiding this group and I am extremely proud of how everyone in our program stuck together and showed tremendous character by competing throughout the season. Everyone on our staff has my appreciation as they all believed in our goals and stayed committed to the development of these young men.”
It’s a commitment players acknowledged throughout the final week of the season, applauding the staff for its efforts. It didn’t lead to wins, but Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said that doesn’t diminish the impact the staff had on them in 2012.
“We had a tough year, but we didn’t use that as an excuse,” Smith said. “We just kept at it every day. We played hard, practiced hard. Coach Smith, he’s a good coach. He stuck in there with us. Most coaches would’ve left. But that’s one thing I’ll remember. We weren’t just a team. We were more like a family.”
It was clear Smith and the Arkansas coaching staff knew the decision was coming after the LSU game. They spoke about it openly and Smith was spotted embracing defensive coordinator Paul Haynes after leaving his final postgame interview.
Smith will remain working in the athletic department as a consultant for the duration of his 10-month contract, which expires Feb. 23, 2013. He will be reassigned to assist in the transition when a new staff is hired.
Arkansas said its assistant coaches will have a chance to remain with the staff “pending the hiring of a new head coach.” There were two holdovers the last time Arkansas hired in 2008 in running backs coach Tim Horton and defensive assistant Bobby Allen. But none of Arkansas staff members knew what the future held Friday.
“I’m going to go home,” Haynes said of his immediate plans. “My family’s here. We’re going to eat and from there we’ll go on, you know? I won’t have my head down, I guarantee you that. I’ll look at the options, pray and put it in God’s hands.”
Long, meanwhile, is closing in on the conclusion of his search for the next coach.
He maintained Saturday the decision to hire Smith to lead the program in 2012 was aimed to give the Razorbacks the necessary time to attract quality candidates and hire the “right coach for the future.” An appointment is expected to come no later than mid-December, although CBSSports.com reported Saturday morning that the Razorbacks intend to have a new coach in place within 10 days.
Several coaches have been linked to the position in various reports the past few weeks. The list includes Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, TCU’s Gary Patterson, Boise State’s Chris Petersen, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin and Baylor’s Art Briles.
“Our new coach will be an individual who shares the passion for success our fans do and who is willing to work relentlessly to achieve our goals,” Long said. “It will be someone who embraces the expectations of winning a national championship and succeeding in the classroom with discipline, honesty and integrity. The leader of our student-athletes will continuously stress academic accountability and the value of earning a degree from the University of Arkansas. Our new coach will embrace what this program means not just to the university, but to the entire state of Arkansas and will share the vision for the future success of Razorback Football.”
Chris Smith and other returning players don’t exactly know what the future holds.
But they’re eager — like everyone else — to find out what’s in store.
“We haven’t heard much,” Smith said when asked about Arkansas’ search for a new coach Friday. “We’ll just take it day-by-day and see what happens.”