After Tyler Wilson threw a 60-yard touchdown pass Saturday afternoon in Arkansas’ annual intrasquad spring game, the star quarterback trotted off the field with a huge grin.
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It was a welcomed sight for a record spring crowd of 45,250 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. One that came nearly two weeks after athletic director Jeff Long almost shed tears when he announced the firing of coach Bobby Petrino after Petrino’s embarrassing lies about his motorcycle wreck exposed an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate.
But on this sunny day without a single cloud in the sky, the Petrino scandal was essentially an afterthought as Wilson’s Red team of starters routed the White team of backups 65-0, despite star tailback Knile Davis playing just one down as a precautionary measure. Wilson finished 31-of-41 passing for 467 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was an awesome, awesome day,” interim coach Taver Johnson said. “It was a great atmosphere and that is what our players needed.”
During Saturday’s game, Long said he hoped to make a decision on Petrino’s successor in “days rather than weeks.” After listening to Long, and seeing how carefree he seemed after Arkansas’ practice on Friday, it appears he will likely keep an interim coach from the remaining staff for the upcoming season.
“It is difficult in this respect if you’re going to bring in a permanent coach, they have no time to install a system,” Long said of his coaching search. “That’s wearing on me because I think the young men in the program have really prepared themselves for an excellent year coming up. The thought of trying to change the system without a spring practice to install really has impacted my decision.”
But as significant as who replaces Petrino, there’s another decision that already has been made that might be even more important. It came following a brief team meeting during which Long first informed Razorbacks players that Petrino had been fired.
After Long left for the news conference to announce Petrino’s dismissal publicly, several frustrated players also headed for the exit. But before they could leave, Arkansas senior linebacker Tenarius Wright told his teammates to sit down.
Once they did, he stood up and spoke briefly. His words helped settle down the room, but uncertainty remained.
That was, until Wilson made the decision to stand up and speak.
If anyone in the room had the right to be upset, it was him. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound redshirt senior had opted to remain at Arkansas for the upcoming season after throwing for 3,638 yards with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions last year, and likely bypassed being a Top 10 pick in the NFL Draft later this month.
He stayed in school not only try to win a national championship and Heisman Trophy, but because he also was intrigued by Petrino’s pitch that he would be the only quarterback to play for the veteran coach for five years. Yet, instead of outrage, Wilson challenged his teammates.
“Guys, this is over and done with,” Wilson told his teammates. “I know all of us are feeling many different ways right now, but there’s two things you can control in life, and that’s your attitude and effort. I’m going to come in here with a positive attitude and tremendous effort every single day, and I ask that you do the same.
“Nothing has changed for us. We’re going to keep our same mindset. We’ve got a great group in our coaching staff. At the end of the day, it’s just the guys in this room that matter. If we believe in it and continue to grind and work, we can achieve what we want to achieve this year. You can look at this as an opportunity or as an excuse. Everybody in here use this as an opportunity.”
When Wilson finished speaking, the mood in the room had changed. The doubt was gone and had instead been replaced by optimism in a galvanizing moment for a team seeking Arkansas’ first national championship since the program’s lone claimed title in 1964.
“I was just proud of him to have the balls to get up and address the team the way he did,” said Davis, a redshirt junior, who missed all of last season because of an ankle injury. “That was a big deal.”
Since then, Arkansas has continued what Wilson describes as “probably our best” session of spring practices during his five years at Arkansas, one in which he was 101-of-146 passing for 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns during four scrimmages. But as much as the Razorbacks try to forget the sordid Petrino scandal, his presence looms.
There’s a large photograph of last year’s team still prominently displayed inside the team’s facility in which Petrino is sitting in the middle of the front row. There’s also ongoing construction of a new $40 million football facility for which he is largely responsible after leading the Razorbacks to their first BCS bowl appearance two years ago and an 11-win campaign last season – with losses to only national championship game participants Alabama and LSU.
His young brother, Paul Petrino, remains Arkansas’ offensive coordinator, and the two still talk about the Razorbacks.
“Coach Petrino certainly left structure for our program,” Long said. “But we still believe we have more to do to be stronger. Our goal still remains to win a national championship.”
The heartache of Bobby Petrino’s lies, though, remains.
Wilson admittedly still feels “slightly” betrayed by his former coach. Wilson said he decided to not declare for the draft in large part because he thought Arkansas had “a solid foundation” and he “trusted” in Petrino.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” Wilson said. “Absolutely disappointed.”
Wilson has not talked with Petrino since the firing. When asked if he wanted to talk to Petrino again, he was unsure what he would have to say to him.
“What we did here was 100 percent football,” Wilson said. “I never dealt with him off the field.”
The last time Paul Petrino visited his older brother was this past Monday, and the two of course discussed the Razorbacks some.
During that conversation and others, Paul Petrino said, he finds himself wanting to tell his brother things about the team. But he catches himself and doesn’t tell him, “God, you should have saw how well we ran this play.”
“It’s hard because with the relationship me and him have, most of the conversations start about football,” Paul Petrino said. “It’s hard to talk about his team because what was his team now isn’t.”
Paul Petrino insists he was completely unaware of his brother’s actions and he describes them as “shocking.”
“It’s been as hard as anything you can ever do, but I’ve got to do it,” Paul Petrino said of continuing to coach at Arkansas. “I’ve got a wife and three kids, and I’ve got to take care of them. I worry about my brother. I love him forever. He made a mistake and he’s paying as bad as you can ever pay.”
But most Arkansas fans seemingly aren’t holding a grudge against Long for Petrino’s firing, as evidenced by Saturday’s crowd, which was 3,250 fans more than the previous spring-game attendance record.
“We kind of called for them to come out and support the guys on the team,” Long said of the Razorbacks faithful. “We’re really appreciative of that.”
Long had felt the backing of his decision to fire Petrino well before Saturday’s game. All he has to do is look across the street from the stadium where a sign that reads, “Jeff Long For President” hangs from the balcony of a house.
Beyond that, Long said, current and former players have repeatedly thanked him for the difficult decision he made. Before Saturday’s game, as part of a fanfest, Long participated in the first autograph session of his career, and he said not a single fan expressed negativity about Petrino’s dismissal.
There even has been financial support that has flowed from the firing of Petrino, mainly in the form of a combined $1.25 million donation from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation and its chairman Fred W. Smith, but also from as a half-dozen others who have made donations ranging from $100 to $1,000, Long said.
But even with all of that affirmation, Long knows just how much Wilson’s speech meant the day he fired Petrino and the impact it has already had on the Razorbacks.
“It was a big moment,” Long said. “It was pivotal because it could have gone either way. Players could have said, ‘Hey, to heck with this, my coach is gone.’ But they didn’t and came together. That was a key point.”
After Saturday’s game, Wilson circled the stadium and signed autographs for screaming fans, one of whom was James Hamilton. The 46-year-old maintenance technician decked out in Razorbacks clothing drove nearly three hours from Maumelle, Ark., to attend the game, but he didn’t even mention Bobby Petrino and instead gushed about Wilson, who signed a white football for him.
“That’s our season,” Hamilton said of Wilson. “It’s a no-brainer.”