By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
ARKANSAS NEWS BUREAU
FAYETTEVILLE — Michael Smith was a record-breaking receiver at Kansas State, earning All Big Eight honors in 1989 and 1991.
His coaching career began at his alma mater a few years later as a graduate assistant for coach Bill Snyder. Smith eventually spent eight years as a full-time assistant as well, coaching running backs like Darren Sproles from 1997-2005. And, when Snyder returned for his second stint in charge of the Kansas State program in 2009, Smith came back to work with the Wildcats’ wide receivers as well.
So Smith said leaving Kansas State after roughly 20 years with the program wasn’t easy. But when Arkansas coach Bret Bielema offered him the chance to replace George McDonald with the Razorbacks, Smith just couldn’t turn it down.
“This is a profession where I’ve always wanted to grow,” Smith said. “I’ve had an unbelievable run at Kansas State University and all of the universities I’ve been at. But this opportunity to come to the SEC and be a part of a great staff and have the opportunity to work again with Bret is something that I’m so excited about.
“I can’t wait to get there and get started.”
Smith was introduced as the Razorbacks’ ninth assistant coach during a media teleconference on Friday afternoon. His addition wraps up Bielema’s staff, serving as an impressive final choice for a position vacated by McDonald earlier this week.
It didn’t take Bielema long to lure Smith, who he worked with at Kansas State in 2002 and 2003. Smith said he wasn’t in consideration for the job the first time around, but got a phone call from Bielema not long after McDonald’s departure.
“He kind of explained where he wanted to go with his program,” Smith said. “He explained how he saw me fitting in. Of course we have a past relationship. I know the guy, I trust the guy. I got off the phone with him, called my wife and spoke with her. Called my parents and asked them what they thought about it.
“I sat down for a little while and called Bret back and told him I’d be interested.”
The terms of Arkansas’ agreement with Smith are not immediately known. But the coach earned $210,000 before incentives at Kansas State, according to the Wichita Eagle. McDonald’s Arkansas salary was set at $275,000 before he resigned to become the offensive coordinator at Syracuse for new coach Scott Shafer.
Smith’s career is a sign the loss won’t hurt the Hogs. Bielema described Smith as “one of the masters of the fundamentals of the game” in a news release Thursday.
“He has a proven track record of leading his student-athletes to reach their full potential,” Bielema added in the Arkansas news release.
The coach also is regarded as an impressive recruiter, who has long-standing ties in his home state of Louisiana and Texas. It’s no secret both areas have been vital to Arkansas’ program and Smith — who was rated as one of the Big 12’s top 10 recruiters by Rivals.com last year — will work the states for the Razorbacks.
He’s expected to begin right away with the Feb. 6 national signing day looming.
“To go down there now with a Razorback on my shirt, and as hot as the SEC is right now nationally, I’m just looking forward to it,” Smith said of his recruiting responsibilities. “I’m going to hit the ground running. I’ve ready received some calls from a bunch of coaches just congratulating me from down there and that’s our plan.
“That’s coach Bielema and our plan is to get down there and try to pave a way for these kids to come straight up to Arkansas and play ball for us.”
Smith hasn’t worked with any other Arkansas coach aside from Bielema, but said he is familiar with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. He’ll also work with offensive line coach Sam Pittman, running backs coach Joel Thomas and tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. to mold an offense trying to replace veterans like Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton, Chris Gragg, Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson next season.
Smith said he’s eager to be the final “piece of that puzzle” under Bielema.
It’s an opportunity he didn’t expect last week. But he’s ready for the new challenge.
“It’s an opportunity for me to branch out and learn some new things, which is important to me,” Smith said. “I don’t want to be stagnant. I’ve been around a lot of great coaches in my tenure as a football coach. I have a lot of knowledge. Hopefully we can sit in some of those staff meetings and just throw things off the wall and off of each other and put together game plans that help us win a lot of football games.”