FAYETTEVILLE, — Even now, John L. Smith refuses to let go of his infectious smile.
He is $25 million in debt, his one-year tryout season is off to a disastrous start and he is living in the shadow of Bobby Petrino’s success. It might be too much for some. Not Smith.
The Arkansas coach has come under fire from fans and media alike in recent weeks. The radio and Internet-driven siege started after the unthinkable loss to Louisiana-Monroe, and the catcalls for Smith’s job could be heard echoing throughout Razorback Stadium a week later during a crushing 52-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama.
That Smith was hired on an interim basis to replace the fired and disgraced Petrino has done little to hold back those frustrated and flat-out angry by the Razorbacks’ fall out of the polls from No. 8. The critics don’t want to hear about injuries; they want the 21 wins Petrino brought to the table over the last two seasons.
Every move Smith has made, every word he’s uttered, has been dissected.
On Monday, two days following the loss to the Crimson Tide, Smith began his weekly news conference with a bit of his usual humor. The former Michigan State and Louisville coach didn’t like the negative energy and funeral-like atmosphere from the gathered crowd, so he offered up his best pep talk.
“Ready? Get your chin up,” Smith said. “Smile. Smile! OK? Dang, you guys ... If not, I’m not talking!”
The banter is nothing new for Smith, whose engaging personality is nothing like that of Petrino. In fact, the only noticeable recent difference in the 63-year-old Smith from earlier in the season has been the addition of a tie to his wardrobe — a bit of sophistication that suddenly appeared on the cowboy-boot wearing coach following the loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
What was very much the same Monday was Smith’s tongue-in-cheek grin during his opening remarks — comments many took to mean he wasn’t taking the two losses seriously enough.
The backlash was so prevalent that Smith addressed the issue during his weekly radio show Wednesday night.
“If somebody in the media or the fans out there would ever misconstrue that about not being serious about the game, then they don’t know us very well, do they?” Smith said, looking back at Arkansas running back Ronnie Wingo and linebacker Matt Marshall. “Football is our life. Winning is our life. So, to misconstrue trying to be positive, trying to exude a little positive energy to not caring or not being serious? Whoever they are, those people are sadly, sadly mistaken.”
Smith’s went on to explain to his listeners and those at the Catfish Hole restaurant that he believes in positive language and that negative body language “exudes nothing but defeat.”
“Why would I walk into a press conference and say, ‘Nick Saban just ripped my heart out?’’” Smith said of the Alabama coach. “Even though you feel that, you’re not going to say that. You’re not going to act like that. You’re not going to show that.”
If Smith wanted to succumb to the negative, he’s had plenty come his way since taking the Arkansas job in April under a 10-month, $850,000 contract. He recently filed for bankruptcy as a result of bad land deals in Kentucky, and a filing this week showed he has debts of more than $25 million against assets of just over $1.2 million.
Then there’s football. Arkansas, 21-5 last two seasons under Petrino, is 1-2 heading into Saturday’s game with Rutgers (3-0). The Razorbacks have played their last game and a half without All-Southeastern Conference quarterback Tyler Wilson, who suffered a concussion in the loss to Louisiana-Monroe, and empty seats were aplenty for the Alabama game — hardly the same atmosphere when the Crimson Tide came to Fayetteville two years ago.
Empty seats were also noticeable at Smith’s weekly radio show, where a sold-out crowd of 186 fans had gathered each week this season. On Wednesday night, only 110 were in attendance — and the empty spot on the wall where Petrino’s picture used to hang was more noticeable than ever.
Kent Doss, 65, of Rogers, Ark., has attended every shows this season started and called the turnout “sad.” Doss grew up in “LA” — also known as Lower Arkansas to locals — and has been a fan of the Razorbacks since arriving on campus as a freshman in the fall of 1965, one season after the school’s undefeated national championship season of 1964.
Like other fans, Doss said he felt let down by Petrino, who was fired for hiring his mistress for a job in the athletic department and for initially lying about her presence during an April 1 motorcycle accident.
“That’s one of those deals where somebody does something stupid, and all of the sudden they blow themselves up,” Doss said. “You want to ask, ‘Why did you do this?’ You can’t figure it out, but all you can do is move forward.”
Doss said the last thing he wants to see now Smith fired. He said that would “send a bad message to potentials” — meaning potential long-term coaches who might take over at Arkansas after this season.
Athletic director Jeff Long has been publicly silent on Smith, though he tweeted after the loss to Louisiana-Monroe: “We’re all disappointed in Sat, none more than S-As & Coaches We will pull together not apart.”
To a man, the Razorbacks have offered unconditional support for Smith, both immediately after his hiring and during the two-game losing streak. They’ve also felt the pressure of the losses, as well as the wrath of fans — including some who engaged in back-and-forth on Twitter with angry fans following the Louisiana-Monroe loss.
“I think sometimes it’s unfair, but that’s the price of being a head coach,” Arkansas backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell said. “Even as a quarterback, you get the praise when you’re winning and don’t when you’re losing. That’s why we focus on you win as a team and lose as a team. Everybody has to behind those two leaders at all times.”
Smith and the Razorbacks received one bit of positive news Wednesday night following practice when they were greeted by approximately 200 students while walking back to the locker room. The students lined the entrance into Razorback Stadium from the practice fields, armed with signs of support.
It was enough to make even Smith smile.
“It was great to see that,” Smith said. “It shows the great spirit, the true, loyal fans, students we have. We thanked them for that, very much.”