Big Imping: The Ballad of John L. Smith

John L. Smith is not a very good college football coach, and possibly sort of nuts. But he seems to be enjoying himself, and that's something.
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Firing imaginary gun at conventional ideas of conversation. Misses target. Ricochet hits self. "Consarn it," he yells.

Image via Bleacher Report.

Within John L. Smith lives a small, silly man. If there is anything strange about the little man living inside the embattled head football coach at the University of Arkansas, it is his gentle, dad-ish loopiness. This is the type of man who, with nothing much else to do, watches episodes of "Mama's Family" on WGN, who sits through hours of afternoon infomercials and then actually phone orders "Best Of" Red Skelton video collections. This embedded homunculus loves mischief, my theory goes, and at times—often the worst and least convenient moments, during times of public stress—he hijacks his host’s faculties, unleashing serendipities on the college football world in never-ending animated gif loops of strained, terrifying awkwardness.

Perhaps, you are familiar with Smith's homunculus-steered highlights at Michigan State: the way in which Smith apparently slapped himself during press conferences, or angrily barked during one halftime interview that "the kids are playing their tails off, and the coaches are screwing it up!"

Smith's more recent performances, during his time at Arkansas, started off fairly innocuous. When one local sportswriter failed to show up to a press conference on time, Smith called him, on the phone, from the podium. "Where are you?" Smith said. "Dollar waiting on a dime, sweetheart. Get here." This is Colorful Coach stuff. Not a big deal.

Since then, Smith's Smithiness has become a bigger deal. During a halftime interview of Alabama’s quartering of Arkansas, Smith showed the world how he intended to rouse his troops’ spirits by ever so spasmodically raising the roof on a pair of air buttocks. It didn’t matter; Arkansas still lost 52-0, and two days later, all Smith wanted to do was SMILE! about it.

The little man is in command. John L. Smith is not entirely himself, and simultaneously fully and fascinatingly himself.

***

On Monday, Smith was the lunch speaker at the Little Rock Touchdown Club. Attendees are mostly businessmen types, typically Razorback fans, and the mood is almost always light. This time, though, a palpable tension coiled the room. Colleagues noted it in conversation; everyone noticed it.

Around the time I was digging into a slice of pumpkin pie, Smith made things even more uncomfortable by referring to Arkansas as the "state of Alabama." When this misstep was brought to his attention, he responded: "I did? Where would that come from? I've never even heard of Alabama." Later, in the Q&A session, the guy sitting beside me tried to have a little fun with Smith by asking him if he thought Bobby Petrino would land his next head coaching job at Auburn or Kentucky. Astoundingly, Smith played along, saying Auburn would be a "better guess." Dude won’t be scaling Kilamanjaro with Gene Chizik any time soon, presumably. But more to the point: why was he saying these things?

Why does John L. do this to himself? On the surface, it doesn’t make sense that he could possibly be this ditzily oblivious and remain a big-time college coach. But other explanations—anything but "this is how he is"—are even less convincing. Even after three straight Razorback losses, the guy simply doesn’t seem to be that serious, which seems increasingly rare in a game that each year becomes less about play and more about money.

Yet here John L. is, still cranking out the losses and laughs, as he has been since the wheels started falling off in Lansing. He’s lost 21 of his last 34 games as a head coach. Larger-personality types like Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier can afford to be funny because they win. Losing, on its own, shortens the leash, but to have very apparent, apparently guiltless fun while doing so? This is not the sort of thing fans or boosters appreciate. It is the opposite of the sort of thing fans or boosters appreciate.

As a funnyman loser, John L. has de/ascended into a special club of coaches. You’ve got Casey Stengel, the rambling, longtime MLB manager who put himself out to pasture with the expansion New York Mets in the early 1960s. Stengel never won more than 53 games in any of his four seasons there, but genuinely seemed to have enjoyed the experience, at one point even making a point of praising fans’ pretty posters: "They make up placards. The placards are terrific. I even have to stop and look at them," he said in 1962. "I think I’ve made 15 mistakes this year reading the placards instead of watching the pitcher or watching the hitter to take my men out." And later, this: "If a banner got in the way, you didn’t mind missing the play, because it was something bad happening anyway."

Another club member, John McKay, became the first head coach of NFL’s new Tampa Bay franchise in the late 1970s. McKay had coached USC to four national titles, but never tasted anything near that level of success with the Buccaneers. Even as the walls crumbled around him, he kept the wit he’d sharpened in Los Angeles, once remarking: "It's shattering when a player loses interest in camp. When you lose your desire to stand around and eat steaks, you lose everything.''

In a way, John McKay is the Beijing butterfly whose flapped wings ultimately blew John L. Smith into Fayetteville last spring as a stopgap replacement for the fired Bobby Petrino. McKay’s son, Rich, became the president of the Atlanta Falcons, which in 2007 rolled the dice on Bobby Petrino as head coach. The gamble didn’t pay off; that team tanked, and Bobby left before the season ended to return to the college landscape—where a vacancy had just developed in Arkansas. Bobby eventually filled out his staff with guys he’d known at previous stints—among them John L, who appeared to have settled into a snug career denouement as an assistant.

Not so. In the wake of Petrino's motorcycle-aided disgrace, John L. is back and he has the Razorbacks—a team ranked eighth in the nation during the preseason—heading toward one of the most massive drop-offs in college football history. Fans are not amused; pundits are laughing, cruelly. John L. Smith is still doing shtick.

Few big time coaches in their right mind would allow themselves to have such fun in such a predicament. There simply appears to be too much at stake—too many games to win, too many boosters to please and only so much time in which to do it. In this particular impossible situation, for this impossible audience, it is very much the destination that counts, not the journey. That John L. forgets this, over and over—that he even can forget it—doesn’t make him a fool. He is only being himself, as if he could somehow be anything or anyone else.


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