FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas wide receiver Cobi Hamilton knows very little has gone right for the Razorbacks this season. A 4-7 record in a year loaded with championship expectations is the only proof needed to sum up the disappointment.
But the senior, who has turned in the most productive season for a receiver in school history, wanted to make one thing clear as he prepared for Arkansas season finale. Arkansas’ support and appreciation for coach John L. Smith hasn’t wavered.
“He’s our guy,” Hamilton said. “He’s the guy that came in. He’s the guy that we chose. And he’s the guy that we’re sticking with. He’s the guy that I told myself I’m going to play my butt off all year for you. I still stand behind that.”
Arkansas will say good-bye to Hamilton and the rest of the 22-man senior class before playing No. 8 LSU in Razorback Stadium at 1:30 p.m. today. But it won’t be the only send off. Smith and the Arkansas coaching staff is working the final game together as well, wrapping up a difficult eight months that began when former coach Bobby Petrino wrecked his motorcycle on April 1 and fired a few days later.
Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long tabbed Smith to guide the program through the tumultuous time and it hasn’t worked as anyone had hoped on the field.
Smith — who left Weber State to return to the Razorbacks — has been under scrutiny because of Arkansas’ 1-4 start and his own personal financial difficulties after filing for bankruptcy in September. It has been hard to swallow, but Smith said it hasn’t soured his experience as the 10-month adventure ends today.
“I’m very thankful for this,” said Smith, who had to choke back his emotions at times during his final Monday news conference. “I’m thankful for having the opportunity to come back. I’m thankful that these guys thought enough of me to say, ‘That’s a guy we’d like back,’ if you know what I mean. I take personal pride in that.”
Long has not said anything publicly about Smith’s future, although the coach is working under a 10-month contract that will expire soon. It’s no secret the contract won’t be renewed as Long continues to search for Arkansas’ next coach.
Smith sounded like a coach who understands he is on the way out earlier this week, reminiscing about the season and forecasting Arkansas’ bright future.
While he couldn’t lead the Razorbacks to the heights they dreamed of over the summer, players said it hasn’t diminished what Smith has meant to them.
“He’s always got a smile,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said. “Whether he’s feeling it deep down in there or not, it’s the way he expresses himself. And, you know, it touches everybody. It says, ‘Hey, make it a good day because you get to make your day whatever you want of it.’
“That’s what he believes, and that’s the way he portrays himself, and that’s the way I think everybody takes it and moves on each and every day because of him.”
Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said the support from players has been vital during the difficult year. Wins and losses are the barometer in big-time college football, but Haynes said Smith “put his heart” into leading the Razorbacks through a rocky season and believes it has shown in the locker room.
“It’s unfortunate for these seniors, guys like Ross Rasner, guys like (defensive tackle) Alfred (Davis) and even John L. that it didn’t turn out the way that we wanted with all the things that happened,” Haynes said. “It doesn’t show the work and the mentoring and the nurturing that went on through all of this adversity because, again, it just comes down to wins and losses.
“But there’s a lot of other things that went on this year behind the scenes that was awesome.”
That said, there’s nothing the Razorbacks want more than to go out with a bang on the field during their final game under Smith.
Arkansas has a chance to beat a ranked opponent for the first time this season and follow in the footsteps of other Razorbacks teams by shocking the Tigers.
This season marks the 10-year anniversary of the Miracle on Markham, when former quarterback Matt Jones’ final drive made the Razorbacks the surprise winner of the West Division title in the Southeastern Conference.
In 2008, Arkansas secured a last-minute miracle as well, wrapping up the season season with quarterback Casey Dick’s last-minute touchdown pass to receiver London Crawford in a Razorbacks 31-30 win.
LSU coach Les Miles knows the Razorbacks are aiming for another surprise.
“I understand that John Smith will not coach there again, but I know him. I know he’s a quality coach and that they’ll be very, very well prepared,” Miles said. “They have ability. You can see they have good players on both sides of the ball, so we’ll have to play well. We recognize that.”
Arkansas needs a win to avoid the program’s first eight-loss season since joining the SEC in 1992 and first since 1990, when Jack Crowe and the Hogs finished 3-8, including 1-7 in the old Southwest Conference. It’s a dubious distinction no one wants to shoulder.
Win or lose, though, Smith will walk off the field for the last time this afternoon. The finality of the situation got to Smith earlier this week, who admitted he was going to be overly emotional as Arkansas wrapped up the season that didn’t go as planned.
“It has not worked like I would have liked. So I’m a little bit regretful in the fact I would have liked to have given them more wins, if you can give that. But you try to give what you can and do all you can and prepare them the best you can, and hopefully we’ve been a positive influence on their lives.
“That’s the best you can do.”