Is Arkansas’ coaching staff all-in?

Arkansas head football coach John L. Smith.

UA Athletics, RazorVision

The rain drizzled off and on before the Arkansas-Alabama game on Saturday — leaving many fans at home, waiting to show up just before game time. The tailgating scene was anemic and there was a definite lack of pep in the air. Perhaps it was because Arkansas lost in overtime to Louisiana-Monroe a mere seven days earlier. In the week since that game, knowing that No. 1 Alabama was rolling into town, Arkansas’ football season outlook had changed from slightly rosy to downright bleak — prompting many Arkansas fans to jump off the bandwagon and stop believing.

Around the tailgates before the game on Saturday, there was quite a bit of talk surrounding head coach John L. Smith’s ability, or lack thereof, to run a program. There were more whispers of Arkansas needing to bring former head coach Bobby Petrino back into the fold (still not going to happen). And there were even fewer conversations talking about how Arkansas was going to bounce back from last week’s loss and give Alabama all they could handle.

Conversations after Alabama’s deafening 52-0 win are focused squarely on Smith, his coaching staff and athletic director Jeff Long.

After the game, coach Smith had this:

Well, I really don’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say to our team as well. It’s kind of hard to say anything at this point.

Taking a cue from a head coach that didn’t know what to say, quarterback Tyler Wilson took advantage:

As a leader it sucks to see people not do their jobs and to see things go wrong. There have been a lot of things go that way. As a leader, at this point, you have to look forward. There have been a lot of people jump off the bandwagon and it is my job to keep everyone in this organization and this team in that locker room together.

If you ask me, there’s no question who’s leading this team right now. Wilson is doing all he can to assert himself into the leadership role and carry his team through a tough time. With Wilson on the field, Arkansas maybe has a chance to win any game. Without him, Arkansas has been outscored 79-10.

Knowing that Wilson is the unequivocal leader, there’s also no question who isn’t leading the team — Coach Smith or anyone on the coaching staff.

Back in April, when Long was desperately seeking the right coach to hopefully salvage Arkansas’ chance at a championship, there were only a few legitimate coaching names that could keep the program afloat for one magical season. The main issue with hiring a new coach is the changing of the guard when it comes to assistant coaches. New faces and schemes will be put in place — and doing that in April is not good timing.

The solution was to pass over any current Arkansas assistant and bring John L. Smith back in to be the “bus driver.” Smith was signed to a 10-month contract, which implied that Long was planning to do a coaching search for next season. Making that move also implied that all coaches on the Arkansas staff had a 10-month window in which to impress Long and effectively “audition” for the soon-to-be vacant head coach position.

The hope was that by hiring Smith and leaving the staff in place, Arkansas wouldn’t skip a beat and could contend for an SEC and NCAA championship. Three games into the season, it’s clear to all just how much influence Bobby Petrino had over the team’s success. And now, with the Hogs sitting at 1-2, it’s becoming very apparent how none of the current staffers will really have a chance to be Arkansas’ next coach.

Here are some tidbits about each coach and their current exploits:

Head Coach John L. Smith

  • “Doesn’t know what to say,” and when he does it’s usually something silly or that Arkansas was out outcoached and outplayed.
  • Knew on Thursday that Wilson was ruled out, likely tried to trick Alabama with Wilson’s dressing.
  • Decision to change long-snappers was costly and set tone early for Arkansas (missed field goal and punt snap sailing overhead).
  • Kept Knile Davis from contact drills throughout entire fall practice.
  • Lost to Louisiana-Monroe.
  • Lost to Alabama 52-0 — the first time Arkansas has been shut out at home since 1966.

Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino

  • Currently on second stint at Arkansas after failing to secure head coach opening at Illinois after Ron Zook was fired.
  • Offensive play-calling, without Wilson in game, has been predictive.
  • Classic Petrino-stubbornness — No running out clock against ULM (FYI, Auburn gained 255 yards against ULM, Arkansas gained 96), and abandoning the only offense working against Alabama — the option with Brandon Mitchell.
Defensive Coordinator Paul Haynes
  • 108th in scoring defense.
  • 65th in rushing defense.
  • 105th in passing defense.

The rumblings are out there that the season is lost and Long needs to set an example by firing Smith. Here’s what Long had to say last Friday:

I’ve said from the beginning I’m conducting a coaching search. That hasn’t changed. Coach Smith has a chance to play, as he said, to make it clear to me he is the right person at the end of the season. So I’m not going to come out … each game and talk about what job he’s doing. That doesn’t do anybody any good in my opinion. We’ll play the season out and then we’ll know at the end of the season what direction we’re headed.

If you feel that Long should send Smith packing, let me ask you this — who on the staff has done anything to indicate they’re ready to lead the team?

From what we saw yesterday after the loss, only Wilson has come out swinging. It appears that only Wilson is doing something, anything, to keep his team together. Perhaps Long should pull a page out of Pete Rose’s book and name Wilson the NCAA’s first player/coach.

There are murmurs that some players are admittedly missing Bobby Petrino’s demeanor after cheering loudly for Smith’s hiring in April. But, according to redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Allen, the players “have all the faith in the world in our coaches.”

Smith’s 10-month contract is getting closer to its end. So, too, are the 10-month auditions for the assistant coaches. The problem, as I see it, is that while the players may still believe there’s something to achieve (and believe me, there is — even if it’s pride and a bowl game), the coaches are going through the same bandwagon jumping as the fans.

The rain and the loss to ULM kept Arkansas fans from really going all-in for the Alabama game. From what I’ve seen so far this season, I’m starting to fear that the coaching staff isn’t all-in, either.