LITTLE ROCK — Those who attended the Little Rock Touchdown Club to hear a gaffe from Arkansas coach John L. Smith got what they wanted.
After squirming in sympathy, those who do revel in someone else’s misspeak appreciated the way Smith handled the situation when told he had subbed “Alabama” for “Arkansas.” The mistake occurred barely five minutes into his talk, when he was encouraging fans not to give up on the program.
The inhale was audible.
He went on about competing — “We have no other alternative … quit is not in the vocabulary” — and touched on Saturday’s game against Texas A&M before somebody gave him the heads up.
“I did?” he said and followed with the rhetorical, “Where did that come from?”
With a smile, he added, “I never heard of Alabama.”
Smith’s mistake will get the headlines, that’s the way it works when the man is the interim coach of a 1-3 team and piling on is a popular sport.
Instead of criticizing him, compliment him for being willing to open the floor to questions from an audience of disappointed fans. He handled each one, responding honestly and with a touch of humor.
For instance, somebody up front asked if expectations for Arkansas — No. 8 in the AP poll after Week 1 — were unrealistic. Smith repeated the question for all to hear and smiled when he told the man, “Yours were unrealistic.” His sense of humor also came through as he pondered how long he had been married. “I have to get it right,” he said while doing the math.
Personally, there was some trepidation about acrimony at the meeting. One man called a Little Rock radio show on Monday morning to say he had a truckload of tomatoes for the meeting and asked where they should be delivered.
Club president David Bazzel, one of the radio show hosts, asked listeners who planned to attend the meeting to be respectful, a phrase he repeated when the luncheon began.
Smith touched on the pain of losing, about him taking responsibility for the losses and the future, about how the players were not going to splinter, and about recruiting for the next coach, whoever that might be.
He spoke for maybe 10 minutes; took questions for longer.
Asked about Dennis Johnson running the ball more, he raved about the running back’s positive body language on the sideline, and said that Johnson would “continue to run the ball better and more.” Johnson had six carries for 47 yards in the loss to Rutgers; starter Knile Davis netted 17 yards on 10 tries.
During a brief pre-luncheon news conference, he said the offensive line must be more physical, that the players “have to take it personal.”
Asked if Davis should have had more contact in the preseason, Smith mentioned the perfection of hindsight, and how he would have been second-guessed if Davis had been injured and missed the season.
In another response, he said he did not think his 10-month contract was an impediment to his job. “I knew my charge,” he said, elaborating that it included keeping the offense and defense on track and keeping the coaches on board.
Questioned about recruiting with the identity of the next coach in doubt, Smith said players are not committing to him or to other coaches, but to the university. He said winning begins with recruiting and that the class signed this year was the best he had seen during his years at Arkansas. He also mentioned that some freshmen might play more.
A week removed from the death of his younger brother, days after his $25 million debt was documented, and less than 48 hours after a loss to Rutgers of the Big East, Smith never considered bailing out on the TD Club. That’s quite an example for young men who hear him preach about being responsible and not taking the coward’s way out.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is email@example.com.