Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long has been in the market for a new head coach since April 10th, the day he fired Bobby Petrino for his laundry list of misdeeds.
The Razorbacks (4-8, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) will soon find out how much of a benefit that head start was for Long, who didn't wait long to announce that interim coach John L. Smith wouldn't return next season.
Long reached his decision on Smith's fate quickly following Friday's season-ending 20-13 loss to No. 8 LSU. The athletic director told the former Michigan State and Louisville coach of his decision Saturday morning, though Smith will remain with the program as a consultant through the end of his 10-month contract on Feb. 23, 2013.
While Smith didn't prove the long-term answer for Arkansas, his tenure did allow Long to research and identify interested coaches across the country.
That was a problem for the athletic director following Petrino's surprising April 1 motorcycle accident that led to revelations he had hired his mistress to a position in the athletic department - and initially lied about her presence during the wreck. Most coaches were entrenched at that time in their current positions following spring practice, a factor that led to Smith's hiring.
"Last April, when I appointed coach Smith for the 2012 season, I indicated I thought this would provide us the opportunity to take the time necessary to identify the right coach for the future and to do so in a time that would allow us to attract quality candidates,'' Long said in a statement.
Long has offered few clues about the identity of his next target (or targets), and he declined a recent interview request from The Associated Press through a spokesman.
The former Pittsburgh athletic director, who hired Petrino away from the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 despite the coach's history of misleading his employers, admitted last month that the number of likely other openings across the country would make the search more difficult. Since then, three other SEC teams (Kentucky, Tennessee and Auburn) have fired their coaches, and all are in likely competition with the Razorbacks for similar candidates.
"That's certainly one of those complicating factors,'' Long said last month.
The last time Long hired a football coach at Arkansas was following Houston Nutt's departure after the 2007 season. That search included several well-publicized flirtations with coaches at other schools, including Wake Forest's Jim Grobe - a mistake Long has seemed intent on correcting this time around.
Little about Arkansas' search in April leaked out before Smith's hiring was announced, and Long said in October he would be wary during this search of coaches seeking to use any interest to get raises in their current jobs. Long has refused to eliminate nearly anyone from the candidate pool, including "top'' assistant coaches from the college game or NFL.
"There's a lot of different types of people that can fill this job and be very successful,'' Long said.
While Arkansas' search began in earnest the day following the loss to the Tigers, Smith and the players were left to reflect on one of the most disappointing seasons in school history.
The Razorbacks, 21-5 the last two seasons under Petrino, entered the season full of their usual Petrino-like bravado - openly talking about the possibility of winning the SEC and a national championship. Their hopes were based on the return of senior quarterback Tyler Wilson and a healthy Knile Davis at running back.
Wilson lived up to expectations this season, leading the SEC in yards passing (302.8) per game, despite a struggling offensive line that had consistent problems protecting him. However, Arkansas' defense was unable to recover from the graduation of several of its top players, allowing an SEC-worst 292.1 yards passing per game, and Davis was never able to regain his 2010 form when he led all conference running backs in rushing.
"As rough in some aspects as this year's been,'' Wilson said after the LSU loss. "And let's not sugarcoat it, it's been tough, it's been a grind to come to work and prepare every single day.
"But you learn so much during it. I wouldn't trade it for anything.''
Wilson said last week that he didn't regret returning for his senior season, and he stressed the positives about his time at Arkansas following the loss to the Tigers. The Razorbacks improved their win total in each of Wilson's first four seasons before bottoming out this season, a stretch that included a trip to the Sugar Bowl and a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State.
"I'm extremely excited about that and proud of that moving forward,'' Wilson said. "I think the expectations are high. There's no reason why we can't achieve success in the future.''
Smith had been his usual upbeat self in the weeks leading up to the end of the season, though he did fight back tears while discussing the future of the Razorbacks and himself last week. The 64-year-old spent plenty of time before and after Friday's game handing out hugs, and he wasn't shy about offering up smiles - even after a losing season during which he also battled a very public $40.7-million bankruptcy case.
"I will remember this as a tremendous year,'' Smith said. "I loved every minute of it. I loved being with these guys. I tried to do all we could do. So it's a step in my life that, with what goes on in those locker rooms, you can't turn your back on those guys.
"And vice versa. Those guys, we're going to love each other forever. There's a lot of great young me in there. I'm going to look back on it as a step in my life, an opportunity I had, to coach great young men at a great institution. I'm blessed.''