FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema first considered hiring Robb Smith when he became Wisconsin’s head coach in 2006.
It didn’t work out then. Or a few years later, when Bielema needed to replace his defensive coordinator and eventually promoted Chris Ash. There was another chance last year, too, when Bielema left for Arkansas and wasn’t immediately sure if Ash was going to join him as defensive coordinator.
It finally worked — on the fourth try — for both sides this winter.
Smith, who Bielema had known since he was on staff at Iowa from 1999-2001, was introduced as Arkansas’ new defensive coordinator Monday. It ended a month-long process in which Bielema said he took his time, interviewed four other “legitimate” candidates for the position, and came to an agreement with Smith.
“I’m glad it came to this point because it’s something that is going to truly benefit our student athletes and the whole program for a long time,” Bielema said.
The 38-year-old will be Arkansas’ fourth defensive coordinator if four years, joining Willy Robinson (2011), Paul Haynes (2012) and Chris Ash (2013). Smith will earn $500,000 annually, according to his employment agreement that runs through June 30, 2016.
Smith, who spent 2013 as the linebackers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, takes command of a defense that has struggled to stop opponents the past several seasons. Arkansas ranked 89th in the NCAA in scoring defense (30.8 points) in 2013.
But Smith, who was the defensive coordinator at Rutgers in 2012, said he’s looking forward to the challenge of transforming Arkansas into a formidable group.
“We’re going to bring an aggressive philosophy to our defense,” Smith said. “Bret and I have had a lot of discussions. There are a multitude of offenses right now and they make you work a lot and dictate the game. We want to do that defensively.”
Smith called former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano one of his biggest mentors, working with the coach while at Rutgers and in Tampa. He joins the Razorbacks after a coaching career that includes stops with Maine (2002-08), Rutgers (2009-12) and Tampa Bay.
Smith has been a defensive coordinator for four seasons during his 12-year career, but Bielema believes he’s a good fit at Arkansas. Bielema said the two coaches “speak the same language” dating back to their days at Iowa.
“We’ve worked in the same room,” Bielema said. “We learned a new defense together and grew up under a system we both strongly believe in.”
It worked at Rutgers, where Smith was in charge of a defense the finished fourth in the NCAA in scoring defense (14.2 points a game), sixth in rushing defense (95.2 yards) and 10th in total defense (311.6) during a 9-4 season in 2012.
Smith said making sure players and coaches are “on the same page” within the defense is the first step. Bielema indicated Arkansas didn’t do good enough in that area last season. Smith also said simplicity is key to building a strong unit.
“I’ve learned that football players are football players,” Smith said. “And at the end of the day, whether it’s a student-athlete or a professional football player, they want to have the tools necessary to be successful. And if you can provide them with that information and those tools, they’re going to gravitate toward you. … As coaches, the two things we can really give them are technique and scheme. And after that, they’ve kind of got to let their God-given abilities go out and make plays. So, it’s our job to make that as simple and concise as possible so that they can make plays.”
Smith carries those principles to Arkansas, where the Razorbacks will continue to operate in a 4-3 base defense.
Smith will coach Arkansas’ secondary. Bielema said Taver Johnson — who coached cornerbacks last season — will aid him and work with nickel backs. Smith also will work with newly hired defensive line coach Rory Segrest and newly promoted senior associate head coach Randy Shannon, who is a former Broyles Award winner.
Smith said he and Shannon met to discuss their plans for Arkansas’ defense before Bielema made his choice official and said the meeting went “very smoothly.” Both coaches have worked with former Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt during their careers.
“I don’t want to speak for Randy, but he was very comfortable in that setting talking football and I know that’s really my biggest comfort level,” Smith said. “We sat for a couple of hours. It seemed like it was 15 minutes because the time flew. We really found we were on the same page on a lot of things and shared the same vision.”
Smith’s rebuilding project won’t be easy in the SEC, where nine of 14 teams averaged more than 30 points a game last season.
It led Arkansas to finish near the bottom of the conference standings in every major statistical category. The Razorbacks also allowed an SEC-high 37.9 points in their eight conference games and ranked 13th in yards allowed (475.2).
But it didn’t keep Smith from embracing a “phenomenal opportunity.”
“It’s the best league in college football without a question,” Smith said. “You’ll get different challenges every week with different styles of offense. That’s exciting for me because you have to prepare for that and you have to put a specific plan together to stop each offense. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s one I’m looking forward to.”