OGDEN -- John L. Smith said he was coming home when he was hired as Weber State's football coach in December; Monday, he slipped out the back door.
Without ever coaching a game at his alma mater, Smith was announced as the head coach at Arkansas, trading in his $130,000-a-year WSU salary for SEC money, signing a letter of agreement for a 10-month deal worth $850,000 plus incentives to replace his longtime coaching associate Bobby Petrino.
Petrino, a former Utah State and Weber State assistant, was fired April 10 after a motorcycle accident on April 1 led to the revealing of his affair with a 25-year-old female employee.
Smith becomes a de facto interim coach for a top-five Football Bowl Subdivision program at which he had been the special teams coordinator the past three years, but leaves the Football Championship Subdivision-level Wildcats in the lurch heading into the summer. According to his contract, he will owe Weber State $25,000 for leaving voluntarily during the first year of employment.
Weber State athletics director Jerry Bovee was in Indianapolis on Monday for NCAA committee meetings but is expected to return quickly to try to stabilize the football program after the sudden departure of Smith.
Smith made the announcement to his Weber State staff around 1:30 p.m., then avoided reporters at his office by leaving through a back door on his way to the airport.
A statement issued by Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long indicated that Smith contacted him about the job.
"When Coach Smith first approached me about returning to Arkansas to serve in this position, he talked about his desire to be a part of the continued success of these student-athletes, this coaching staff and the Razorback program," Long said. "He has been a part of the record-breaking success we have enjoyed in the past few seasons."
"I am tremendously excited to have this special opportunity to return to Arkansas and lead the Razorback football program," Smith said in the same statement. "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."
Bovee is expected to name an interim head coach to replace Smith soon, potentially from his current staff.
"We knew when we hired John L. as our head football coach that we were getting a high-profile coach that we felt would move our program forward," Bovee said in a statement. "Obviously, the timing of this announcement is problematic but at this point we are going to move forward in making decisions that are in the best interest of our program."
Weber State senior cornerback David James described his reaction to the news: "Disbelief. Confusion. Shock."
"He believed in us. I definitely didn't think it was going to happen, this definitely hit me from the left," James said. "To be honest with you, it hurts a little bit, but the man has an opportunity. I just wish him the best. We still have the goal as a team to stay together to win the national championship. ... This is only going to make us closer as a team. We can not allow this to make us separate."
Sophomore wide receiver Xavian Johnson had similar feelings.
"It hurts," Johnson said. "It was horrible, but we've got to keep moving forward, doing what we've got to do. It's a good opportunity for him, but it's a downset for us. Now we don't know what to expect out of a new head coach or what to expect out of the team. We've been trying to build unity and come together as one, but now it's like I don't know if it's possible to do that, just because we don't have a head coach to guide us through that."
Senior tight end Brian Jankowski said the challenge could make the Wildcats stronger.
"We have enough coaches on the staff and I believe in our coaches we have right now, that we can take this and we can run with it. In the end, it will probably make us a tougher team, probably bring us closer," he said. "It kind of ruined my golf game today though."
Smith, who played linebacker and quarterback at Weber State from 1969-71, returned to his roots at the school in December after moving up in the coaching ranks from Idaho and Utah State to Louisville and Michigan State. Now Smith is pulling up roots once more.
"It's just part of the profession," WSU offensive coordinator Matt Hammer said of Smith's departure. "Coach has a great opportunity to be part of a great program, and have a chance to be really good. Financially, the whole deal, you can't blame him. All of us would do the same thing. It's just crazy."
Hammer said he couldn't predict what might happen over the next few weeks.
"We've got a lot of good coaches here and we've still got a good team coming back. We've got to do whatever is asked of us to be successful. You can sit here, speculate, ask, but it's just one of those things," he said. "You've got to keep moving forward."
Former Weber State coach Ron McBride, whose retirement preceded Smith's hiring, was preparing to be inducted in the University of Utah's Crimson Club Hall of Fame on Monday evening when he heard the news.
"I'm obviously interested in the Weber State program and what happens to it because I've got a lot of time invested in it," McBride said. "This kind of blindsided me. I had no idea.
"I would do anything for Weber State's program that needed to be done. I want the program to be secure. I don't want the players to be in limbo. I'm very interested in what's happening."