FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — John L. Smith hasn’t given up hope of returning as Arkansas’ coach quite yet.
The interim coach also said Monday, two days after a 38-20 loss to South Carolina, that he’s not concerned about the ongoing coaching search by athletic director Jeff Long.
The Razorbacks (4-6, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) started the season ranked in the top 10, but they are now on the brink of missing a bowl game. Arkansas must now win its final two games to earn bowl eligibility for a fourth consecutive season, beginning this week at Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3) before closing out the regular season at home against No. 8 Louisiana State University.
“I’m the most optimistic guy you could imagine,” Smith said. “So, I’m always optimistic. I’m optimistic on us going to Starkville and getting a win this weekend. The other stuff can take care of itself. I’m not overly worried about any of that.”
Smith was hired to replace the ousted Bobby Petrino in April, just weeks after the scandal that erupted following Petrino’s April 1 motorcycle accident that involved his mistress.
The former Michigan State and Louisville coach was signed to a 10-month contract, and Long said last month that Smith was still a candidate to remain with the Razorbacks – even after an early four-game losing streak crushed Arkansas’ preseason championship hopes. Long added that it would be apparent at the end of the season whether Smith was his choice, a question that has likely long since been answered.
Smith, however, is still holding out hope. He also said he’s not about to start reflecting on the likely finality of his 40-year coaching career with two games remaining.
“No. That’s way over my head, mentally,” Smith said. “I have trouble just concentrating on today and this part of our season and where we are. I’m going to love every day that we go do the practice field, because that’s the best part of my day and being around those guys is what it’s all about. And thank God I’ve had the opportunity to do that.
“I’m just knocking on wood, stretch it as far as we want or as far as we can.”
The Razorbacks were 21-5 the last two seasons under Petrino, but injuries and the post-Petrino turmoil have proved too much to overcome this season. They are last in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 291.1 yards per game, and Smith has been unable to live up to his preseason talk of competing for a national championship.
Making matters worse, and much more personal, Smith filed for bankruptcy in September – revealing $40.7 million in debt following land deals gone wrong in Kentucky.
Still, despite the personal troubles and Arkansas’ mounting losses, Smith’s upbeat personality has remained constant. He was a welcomed hire in April by the Razorbacks, who praised his colorful ways following Petrino’s heavy hand, and nothing has changed since then.
“This situation is tough, for anybody,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said. “He’s done everything that’s been asked of him, so he’s done an incredible job. I think tremendously high of him, obviously, and the rest of our coaches on our staff. They’ve done their jobs.
“Now, at times, we’ve got to go out there and do a better job of doing what we do. And in that, you create some more wins.”
Razorbacks kicker Zach Hocker was one of the closest to Smith the last three seasons while the 63-year-old coach was an assistant coach under Petrino. Hocker, a junior, said he would “absolutely,” welcome Smith back next season.
“I love coach Smith to death,” Hocker said. “He’s doing his job. It’s just on our plate now for the players to do our job and hold our own and win games. I think as long as our team starts to show some leadership and step up and win games, I think we’ll be fine as far as the coaching situation.”