John L. Smith says, “I’m a football coach, not a businessman,” and there’s a note of reassurance there for Arkansas football fans — because the second half of that sentence, at the least, is spot-on. Smith, the stopgap ball coach that Arkansas hired to replace motorcycle-crashing horndog Bobby Petrino, told the Associated Press that he plans to declare bankruptcy in the near future, perhaps during the season.
Smith apparently made some land investments in Kentucky that started sweet enough to draw him in deep, then went to hell when the market slowed. If that song sounds familiar, some version of that happened lately to millions of other people, many of whom had the good sense not to buy in such dangerously overheated markets as Las Vegas, Miami or, uh, Kentucky.
The version of events he gave the AP may be a little too aw-shucks to wash completely, but here’s what we have so far:
Smith said his land investments began through acquaintances while he was the coach at Louisville from 1998-2002, starting with one subdivision development and evolving from there.
As the real estate market began to slow several years ago, Smith said, he and his partners faced a difficult time maintaining their investments.
“It just got big,” Smith said, who described his stake as being in the “multi-millions.”
“It was a situation where we all made a little and said, `Well, that’s good. Let’s see if we can make a little more,’” he said. “At that point, the bank was willing to give away money. We got in over our head with land, and then the bubble burst and all this land value dropped and we couldn’t sustain it.”
Smith wasn’t sure exactly how much money he owed to creditors, including some of his former partners, but he has started preparing to declare bankruptcy now. He wasn’t 100 percent certain he’ll have to declare, but said “that’s where I am proceeding to get my plate cleaned up.”
Arkansas hired Smith away from his alma mater, Weber State, on a 10-month contract worth $850,000, about four times what he would’ve earned coaching in the Big Sky conference. At the time he just looked like an opportunistic jerk, leaving Weber State at the altar while running back to Fayetteville, where he had been an assistant under Petrino. Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long knew of Smith’s money woes during the interview process.
If you’re a glass-half-full kind of fan (and if you root for the likes of Arkansas, you pretty much have to be) then this is, perversely, great news. While it may amount to a serious distraction for the head coach, you have to figure he’s going to be coaching his ass off to try and stick with a program whose previous head coach’s salary was $3.53 million a year. The Hogs have enough firepower coming back to win nine or 10 games, and maybe get Smith a longer-term deal that could presumably put him back in the black, or near it.
If you’re more realistic, you’ll wonder when this program will get back to normal. Since the Hogs won the Cotton Bowl in January and finished the season in the top 5 for the first time in more than 30 years, its head coach crashed his Harley, manipulated the state police, admitted to an extra-marital affair with a 25-year-old ex-volleyball player whom he’d just fast-tracked onto the university payroll, and was fired for cause — costing his $18 million contract. Then, just as Arkansas watched three of its graduating receivers picked in the NFL draft, three players were arrested and charged with a total of 19 counts of burglary in a scheme that apparently included stealing textbooks from dorm rooms and then re-selling them back to a campus bookstore. Also, a senior lineman just received 10 days in jail for stealing another student’s debit card and buying $35 in gas back in March.
Look, people tend to like Smith, and maybe his business deals don’t reflect on the man, but you could do worse than to have a coach who will literally go for broke. “I jump out of airplanes, climb mountains and run with the bulls,” he told Hawgs Illustrated earlier this year. “If there is an open window, I jump through it.” This is the guy who coined one of the dopier catchphrases in college football during a game against LSU when he nudged Petrino to take a deep shot on fourth-and-3 late. “We didn’t come to paint,” he reportedly said, and Petrino pulled the trigger. Here’s how that turned out.
For what it’s worth, Petrino reportedly took a helluva bath on the house he bought before he pissed away his career. The Northwest Arkansas Business Journal reported in June that Petrino unloaded the 8,741 square-foot Fayetteville mansion for $1.7 million, about $550,000 less than he and his wife paid for it in 2008, which was just a lousy time to be buying anything bigger than a park bench, practically anywhere.