By KURT VOIGT, Associated Press
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — John L. Smith did his best to keep the mood light, opening with his usual touch of self-deprecating humor about the color of his shirt.
"I'm trying to get in touch with my pink side," Smith joked.
That the laid-back and often-times comical Arkansas coach was wearing a tie with that shirt, the first time he's done so this season during his weekly news conference, was perhaps a sign of the pressure he's feeling these days.
All is not well with the Razorbacks, not after what appears to be a season-wrecking loss to Louisiana-Monroe that sent Arkansas tumbling from No. 8 right out of the poll — the second-largest drop in history.
It's a loss that once again showed just how large of a shadow former coach Bobby Petrino has cast over the program, and in particular over Smith. The former Michigan State and Louisville coach was hired on an interim basis to replace Petrino in April, but he's been clear since that he wants the job on a long-term basis.
That interim tag felt very temporary across Arkansas after the overtime loss to the Warhawks — particularly with a visit from No. 1 Alabama looming this week.
A spokesman said Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long was out of town Monday and unavailable for comment, but Saturday's loss was another in a long list of blows to the football program since Petrino's firing in April. Long has said he plans to continue his coaching search during the season.
"It feels like that we're watching the program unravel," said Bo Mattingly, a sports radio host on 92.1 FM-The Ticket in northwest Arkansas whose show is syndicated throughout the state. "Certainly, a win over Alabama would stop that. An eight-win season would probably slow the bleeding, but we all understand this is really about the next head coach they hire. And John L. Smith is no longer part of that equation, if he ever was."
Smith did his best Monday to look forward to this week's matchup with the Crimson Tide, though he might do it without quarterback Tyler Wilson. Wilson suffered a head injury during the first half of the loss to the Warhawks, and Smith said he is still experiencing "grogginess" and hasn't been cleared by doctors.
Whether Wilson plays or not, Smith faces a weeklong challenge of motivating a team that entered the season with goals of competing for the SEC and national championships.
"It was a disappointing day," Smith said. "We're all feeling bad, yes. But this, hey, it's not the first time in your life you're going to feel bad. You're going to have adversity all through your life. How are we going to deal with it?"
Smith knew just how unique of a situation he was stepping into when he was signed to a 10-month, $850,000 contract. He took on a team loaded with high expectations, one that had gone 21-5 the last two seasons and finished at No. 5 last season, with losses only to national champion Alabama and runner-up LSU.
It was a team in shock after Petrino's ouster following revelations he had hired his mistress to a position in the athletic department and initially lied about her presence during an April 1 motorcycle accident.
The Razorbacks were unified in their acceptance of Smith, who had served as an assistant at Arkansas the past three seasons. They praised his openness and personable approach — polar opposites of Petrino's steady glare and heavy hand.
They continued to offer their unconditional support of Smith on Monday.
"We still believe in John L., 100 percent," Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg said. "Everybody on the team does. Nothing has changed. ... People might talk about John L., but everyone in the Broyles Center that comes here and goes to work; we're still behind John L., 100 percent."
Safety Ross Rasner echoed Smith's thoughts about the fact Arkansas still has its entire SEC schedule ahead of it, with plenty of opportunities for success. Rasner pointed out that Georgia lost its first two games last season before going on to play in the SEC championship game.
Those losses, however, were to nationally ranked teams in Boise State and South Carolina — hardly like the struggles Arkansas has had so far this season against Jacksonville State, a Championship Subdivision team, and then against Louisiana-Monroe.
Rasner said he knows his coach isn't "focused on what all the naysayers are going to have to say." Rasner also he said he is definitely not looking back at what might have been with Petrino, who didn't lose to a team ranked below him in his last two years with the Razorbacks.
"We're not even focused on what our previous coach would have done," Rasner said. "We're here in the now in the present, so that's what we're focused on."
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