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Ogden • At 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Weber State football coach John L. Smith informed his staff that he had accepted an interim head coaching position at the University of Arkansas. By 3 p.m., the now former Wildcats coach was driving down I-15 toward Salt Lake City International Airport, where a private jet sent from Fayetteville, Ark., was waiting for him.
Less than five months after hiring Smith, the Wildcats are looking for another football coach.
Smith was tapped by Arkansas to serve as interim coach Monday, two weeks after the firing of Bobby Petrino. Smith, who spent the three previous seasons as the Razorbacks' special teams and linebackers coach under Petrino, will be paid $850,000 on a 10-month contract that also includes incentives. At Weber Sate, Smith was to earn $130,00 per year, with incentives, including $10,00 for winning the FCS Championship game.
"This is not a good time to hire a new football coach," Weber State athletic director Jerry Bovee said from Indianapolis, where he is attending an NCAA convention.
"I was surprised, disappointed," Bovee continued. "By the same token, this is a business sometimes a cold business."
Smith, named Weber State's new coach on Dec. 6 to replace the retiring Ron McBride, had just completed his first spring practice with the Wildcats.
Smith did not respond to messages from The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday, but said in an Arkansas statement that he was "tremendously excited to have this special opportunity to return to Arkansas and lead the Razorback football program. During my coaching career, I have always been dedicated to developing student-athletes to their fullest potential. In the last couple of weeks, I came to the realization I could provide guidance and stability to a program I'm extremely invested in."
In December, Smith, a Weber State graduate, seemed equally excited to be returning to his alma mater.
"I've always had a place in my heart for Weber State," said Smith.
Asked about his coaching philosophy during spring football, Smith said, "Loyalty is No. 1."
Though several Wildcat players said they understood the business side of Smith's departure he's headed for a Top 10 program in the SEC for much more money they were nonetheless stunned by the coach's departure.
"Damn, not again," said senior defensive back Jarret Gooden, referring to McBride's retirement after the 2011 season.
Defensive back David James said he felt "Disbelief. Confusion. Shock. I definitely didn't think this was going to happen. It hit me from the left. It hurts a little bit."
Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long on Monday called Smith, 63, the right man to replace Petrino, who was fired April 10 after his affair with a woman he hired as an assistant was discovered following an April 1 motorcycle crash. It was later revealed that Petrino had flouted university hiring policies to put his mistress on the payroll.
"Coach Smith brings a wealth of football knowledge, BCS conference head coaching experience, passion for the game and a close familiarity with the current team and coaching staff," Long said.
Smith and Petrino are longtime acquaintances, going back to their coaching days together at Idaho. Petrino replaced Smith at Louisville when Smith left to take the job at Michigan State.
Long confirmed reports Monday that Smith pursued the Arkansas opening. Bovee said he was unaware his coach was seeking the job.
"I talked with him [Sunday], and he didn't mention that," Bovee said, adding Smith told him he was not in the Arkansas coaching mix in the immediate aftermath of Petrino's dismissal.
McBride said that he was "dumbfounded" by the news.
"The timing is real bad for Weber," McBride added. "The kids are just getting ready for summer and learning a new system.
"It's understandable he wants to prove himself at Arkansas," he said of Smith's departure. "Still, it's hard to take. I feel bad for Weber. It's my school."
Moving forward, Bovee said he wants to keep the coaching staff together, with the possibility that one of them could emerge as an interim coach.
Asked about returning to Weber to replace Smith on an interim basis, McBride was noncommital.
"I don't know what the situation is," McBride said. "Obviously, I loved it there. We'll see what they want to do."
After absorbing the initial shock, Weber State offensive coordinator Matt Hammer said the Wildcats will eventually be all right.
"I'm blindsided, but we'll be fine," Hammer said. "The kids will be fine."
• John L. Smith was hired as interim coach at University of Arkansas on Monday for $850,000. He served as the special teams and linebackers coach for the Razorbacks the past three seasons.
• Smith was officially hired by Weber State, his alma mater, on Dec. 6.
• When Smith left Louisville in 2002, he was replaced by Bobby Petrino, whom he is replacing at Arkansas.