Arkansas adjusts to Smith's coaching style
By KURT VOIGT
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Knile Davis unintentionally offered the deepest insight into how the personality of the Arkansas football team has changed in the weeks since Bobby Petrino's firing and John L. Smith's hiring as his replacement.
Davis, the star Razorbacks running back, was comparing the differences in coaching styles between the controlling, businesslike Petrino and the huggable Smith when he mentioned that Smith has a demanding side to his personality as well.
"John, he has a serious side," Davis said. "You can't be in this game playing around. He can be serious. He knows how to get what he needs out of you, but he also has a playful side, and that's cool."
Davis' reference to Smith by his first name didn't go unnoticed, and he was quickly asked if he would have ever referred to Petrino as "Bobby."
"Uh, no, probably not," Davis said with a sheepish smile.
It's been less than a month at Arkansas since Petrino's dismissal after revelations he hired his mistress and gave her $20,000 in gifts.
Since then, the Razorbacks have completed spring practice, welcomed their former assistant Smith back as head coach and made plans for an offseason of work while trying to build on last season's 11-2 record and No. 5 final ranking.
The Arkansas program itself has also undergone a personality transformation of sorts. Players have been made available to the media more frequently and for longer durations than in the past. They are willing to talk openly about the whirlwind spring following Petrino's motorcycle accident on April 1. And, more than anything, they appear relaxed for a change.
"Yeah, the environment is a lot different, but it's cool that it's different," Davis said. "It's not bad that it's different."
It's a kinder, gentler version of the Razorbacks in Fayetteville these days - thanks largely to the outgoing and personable Smith. He left Arkansas in December after serving as an assistant for three years under Petrino, becoming the head coach at his alma mater, Weber State.
Following the Petrino scandal, it was Smith who inquired about returning to the Razorbacks. He eventually signed a 10-month, $850,000 contract and was greeted with a hero's return from the players - who welcomed the fact that Smith would keep the coaching staff intact while also calling him a "players' coach."
"We have full respect for coach Smith," Arkansas wide receiver Cobi Hamilton said. "Obviously, he's a little different personality and you're going to see a few more smiles, a few more laughs, but he's a great coach. We're going to stand behind him, and I know he has a lot of guys here who are ready to play for him."
The last time Petrino took part in an Arkansas practice on the field was on March 30. The former Atlanta Falcons coach was in his usual form that day, berating a side judge for missing an offside call during the scrimmage.
Petrino was known to save the same kind of wrath for his players. Any criticism of his methods, though, was quickly squashed by his success and that of his players, particularly on offense.
Arkansas was 34-17 in four seasons under Petrino, 21-5 over the last two while leading the Southeastern Conference in passing offense in three straight seasons. Before that, he was 41-9 in four seasons at Louisville.
Those are all facts Smith is well aware of, after having coached with Petrino at four schools.
"Hey, Bobby's a genius," Smith said. "He's so far over my head, it's scary."
Smith said he plans on keeping the same practice structure and discipline that Petrino had in place at Arkansas. That said, he's well aware that his personality is far different than that of his predecessor, saying: "I'm just going to be me, and I don't think Bobby could be anybody but him," and that he hopes to bring more of a "personal touch."
"Those kids are going to come in this office, they're going to sit down and they're going to get their butt chewed," Smith said. "Not that (Petrino) didn't, but they're going to get hugs as well."
The players have had to walk a delicate line while praising Smith's personable approach, for the last thing they want to do is seem as if they are criticizing Petrino. Not only did he lead them to the Sugar Bowl two seasons ago and a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State last season, but Petrino also recruited all of the players and has put them in the position to compete for a national championship.
"I think there's two ways to coach a football game, and I've always said that," Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said. "There's plusses and minuses to both. I don't think you bash one at all.
"There's preferences, obviously, that I like coaching, but there's two ways to coach a football game and guys respond differently to both, so you've kind of got to have the best of both worlds."
Smith showed the best of those two worlds during an end-of-year team meeting last week. Davis said Smith was his usual outgoing self during the meeting while also laying down a firm tone in addressing internal matters.
None of the players would say what those matters were, but they likely had something to do with three arrests since March.
What Davis and others did say was that Smith was in "full command" of the meeting room. He expects that command to continue throughout next season, just as he's sure the comparisons between Smith and Petrino will continue.
"Coach Petrino is the way he was, John L. is the way he is," Davis said. "Whether who's better really doesn't matter to me. They both have their ways of coaching and getting people to do what they need them to do. That's cool with me."
Updated May 6, 2012