Blessed with an unexpected chance to leave his station on a high, John L. Smith's penchant for the football variety of self-immolation overwhelmed him.
For all of Smith's admitted nobility in a season of professional and personal turmoil, the veteran coach's in-game judgment was more than sporadically cloudy over the past dozen weeks. And it culminated with a couple of decidedly terrible choices at critical points in the Hogs' wrenching 20-13 loss to LSU. It was, in so many ways, a perfect capper to a season of historic disappointment.
Smith was, unsurprisingly, liberated from his duties as head coach within hours after the final of eight defeats in a 12-week span. Pried away from a likely swan song job at his alma mater in May in a frenzied effort to maintain order in the wake of Bobby Petrino's dismissal, Smith simply had too much rust and not enough gusto. As much as injuries and a paucity of depth at key positions ravaged this team, you can easily argue that Smith's decisions alone kept this team from playing a bonus game. To wit:
1. In the Rutgers loss, with the Hogs' defense faltering badly, Smith opted for a two-point conversion after an 80-yard Cobi Hamilton touchdown drew the team within 28-26 midway through the fourth quarter. Smith went for the tie with a poorly-designed conversion attempt, and an ensuing Rutgers TD made it a two-possession final margin. Not long after, Smith elected to punt the ball with only seven minutes left and the Hogs situated at midfield. Arkansas needed to minimize Rutgers' possessions and give itself the last shot; instead, it dug a two-score hole in an ugly, but winnable contest.
2. Arkansas was shredding Ole Miss early on Oct. 27, and Smith, moments after boldly but correctly calling for a fourth-and-long pass in Ole Miss territory that was successful, trotted out the field goal unit when the Hogs were facing a fourth-and-1 inside the Rebel five. Zach Hocker converted, the fans grumbled, and Arkansas's momentum soon petered out after it had built a 10-0 lead.
3. That brings us to Saturday, where the Hogs summoned unexpected passion in the last 30 minutes of a game without real consequence. Tyler Wilson started eyeballing different receivers. Knile Davis resembled Knile Davis. A long-suffering defense ached to demonstrate fortitude in a season bereft of it, and showed that next year's unit may be a relative strength for a change. The Hogs surged back from a 17-3 deficit with a wonderfully-orchestrated touchdown drive, then had the nose of the ball positioned so close to the goal line for a tying TD in the fourth quarter that even a failure to score would've put the Tigers in terrible straits.
Smith, without hesitation and with subsequent explanation that defied even what I would have expected him to say, chose a 17-yard field goal. That's right — literally the shortest possible field goal that football statisticians can lawfully document. John Henson (Hocker got relegated to the pine after shanking two kicks in the first half) had the unfortunate duty of calmly angling that kick through as a surprisingly throaty Hog crowd told Smith just how milquetoast his decision was.
Make no mistake: a 7-5 Razorback team doesn't keep Smith in contention for long-term employment any more than the 4-8 one did. The season was an abject, multifaceted failure that even a couple of extra wins wouldn't have mitigated. Smith's disconnect with the team was perturbing. He often said all the right things during the week (and in fact made for a more articulate mid-week radio subject than Petrino ever did), but by the time Saturday rolled around, Smith was no longer fully engaged. The earmarks of prior coaching disappeared in a most shocking fashion: When a Petrino team found itself tested, it generally bowed up. Smith's teams notably caved in.
Contrast Texas A&M games 12 months apart. Last fall, Arkansas trailed the Aggies 35-17 at halftime; this year, the deficit was 27-10. Arkansas outscored the Mike Sherman-led Ags 25-3 in the second half en route to a season-altering win, but Smith's troops didn't muster anything at Kyle Field and gave up another 31 points on the way to a 48-point loss.
That's the Smith legacy, such as it is. Arkansas was riddled with all manner of misfortune from April 1 onward, but Smith seemed resigned to a hopeless posture, one where he just casually accepted inaction by his coordinators and made only rudimentary shakeups when the worm turned hard.
In retrospect, there was a degree of prescience in Smith's famous "the coaches are screwin' it up!" outburst in his last year at Michigan State. And that, unfortunately, left Razorback fans no cause to smile, as he would lustily implore them to do seven years later.