State of the Hogs: The Next Rungs

John L. Smith said victories over Alabama and LSU would be career highlights. The new Arkansas coach wants to get to the top of the ladder.

John L. Smith sees some career highlights on his personal climb up the ladder of college football in the near future.

Simply put, the next rungs are victories over Alabama and LSU.

Of course, that's not so simple. Those two will likely be in the top two or three when the Hogs play them this season in the two games that will not only shape the SEC West but the national championship scenario, too.

Smith has some personal highlights in a 19-year career as a head coach. He said it's all relative as you "climb the ladder" and each of those rungs has great meaning at the time.

"But I hope there is something out there better," he said. "Like beating Alabama and LSU. That's why I'm here. That's why I came back. That's the games that I came back to win, to climb that ladder. You want to get to the very top rung. I haven't been there and it's why I'm here today."

Today was Tuesday. It was a day of meeting individually with he Arkansas media. He had more one-on-one interviews in that office than his predecessor had in four years. He did a full day of interviews with both television and print members of those that cover the Razorbacks.

Smith said he was told by one print writer that his visit in the head coaches office pulled him even with the last head coach over a four-year period. The total was one as far as one-on-one interviews in that chair.

"We can beat that and we'll do it soon," Smith said. "We will do a lot more than two or three. I promise you that. That's what you do in this position, you take yourself to the people and to do that you can't be in an ivory tower. We will change that."

That's not all he wants to change. He also realizes that Bobby Petrino did not beat Alabama in his four years at Arkansas. To get to Atlanta to play in the SEC title game -- and to get to Miami where the BCS title will be decided -- the Hogs must go through Alabama and LSU. Those two teams are likely to be in the nation's top two or three spots when the Hogs play them. The good news is that both are in Fayetteville.

"We have to get this place rocking," Smith said, pointing behind him to Reynolds Razorback Stadium. "We have a lot of preparation to do with our team to be ready for those games. But we will get there. We want to be prepared and do our part and we want our fans to pack this place and have it rocking. I think they will do their part, too."

Smith said his personal climb up the ladder has been great fun. He said there are games he will never forget. But more importantly, he won't forget the people who fought those battles with him, both players and coaches.

"I remember the first college win I was a part of against Boise State, our first one," he said. "I was with Dennis Erickson. He was the head coach. Then, as a head coach, I remember when we were at Utah State and we beat Utah. Then we did it over and over.

"I remember the first time we beat Kentucky when we were at Louisville. They had beaten us pretty good, then we beat them unmercifully. Then, at Michigan State, I remember going to Notre Dame and winning. That field had so much history and we felt that on that day when we won there.

"And there were special victories that we have been a part of coming here. I put some of those on the rungs of the ladder. You keep going up. I think we've been climbing those rungs here the last three years.

"But I hope there is something out there even better. I think like beating Alabama and LSU this year. That would be special. Like I said, that's why I'm here."

What makes John L. Smith special? What makes him the coach that he is and where did he get his philosophy?

"I think everyone is a part of me, everyone I worked with gave me something," he said. "I take something from all of them. There is some of Dennis Erickson in me.There is something from my high school coach in me. There is something of Bobby Petrino in me, just as I think there is something of me in Bobby Petrino.

"When I sat in the room and listened to Bobby talk to us as coaches, or to the players, I'd think, 'I know where that came from.' I could tell you where it came from exactly.

"I think so much of what we do here is from my background. The structure is a lot like I've been doing it for a long time. That's why this is so easy for me. This is all me. Or it's things that I learned here. I think all of our coaches have been through everything we do so many times, sometimes with me a long time ago. So nothing has to change. Nothing has to be different from the structure we have. It can just go forward.

"I think what you try to do is look at the people you work with and see the good things they do and take those. The bad things, you leave."

The one thing that John L. Smith hopes to add is his personal touch, the love he seems to bring to the locker room and the meeting room. No doubt, that part of him is different. Petrino was rigid, perhaps more business-like than Smith.

It's that passion and love that keeps him close to his former players. He gets phone calls from hundreds of players through the course of a season.

"You don't ever get tired of that," he said. "Deion Branch called me before the first Super Bowl to thank me for being a part of his journey. I cried.Then he did it the second time. He did it again this third time. I cried again. The calls came just before the game. That's why you are in it, why you coach, to get those kinds of calls. The thank yous. I love those."

Branch played for Smith at Louisiville. The fleet wide receiver was plucked out of junior college by Smith.

Does this team have some NFL stars on the roster?

"As individuals, I'm not sure," Smith said. "I think we have a lot of talent. There may be some like a Branch, but they still have a long way to go before they are there. But as a team, I think we can be special. It can't be one or two guys being special. It has to be everyone working together as one unit and then we can be that special.

"Yes, we have good players. But it is yet to be defined how special we can be and if this team plays together as one unit. That's the job we have and that's what's out there to do as work. It will take a little luck and hard work from coaches and players.

"But we have a great opportunity. I think we can get there if we are good enough and put in that work."

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