Arkansas still looking for leadership
HOOVER, Ala. — Bobby Petrino's indiscretions did not leave Arkansas football without a leader.
A leader never climbed on that motorcycle, never made shady administrative hires and then never lied about doing so. A leader was never dismissed.
Quarterback Tyler Wilson, the makeshift face of the Arkansas program, sat on a provisional stage Wednesday speaking clearly into a microphone, projecting confidence in his football team's future prospects. Linebacker Tenarius Wright spoke of pep talks and promises, of stepping into a leadership role following Petrino's departure — a capacity that was never wholly filled to begin with.
Speculation and judgment poured down on Fayetteville when Petrino was caught having an extramarital affair with a newly-hired athletic department employee he personally recommended for the job. Such criticism was merited, without question. The 51-year-old coach was promptly fired, assumedly knocking the Razorbacks off their ambition-filled pedestal.
Those left in Petrino's wake don't see it that way.
"After the fact that [athletic director] Jeff Long just told us that [Petrino] just got fired, and Jeff Long walked out, everyone thought the meeting was over with and wanted to walk out, too. And I just stood up and I was like, 'Sit down, calm down,'" Wright said of a speech he and Wilson gave to the team. "My whole message was that nothing's gonna change around here … We're gonna have a new face leading us out of the tunnel to win games, but that's the only thing that's changing."
In the aftermath, Arkansas attempted to wipe itself clean of the fallen offensive guru's presence by hiring John L. Smith to be that new face on an interim basis. Many fans ignorantly fought that idea, but Petrino, coincidentally true to his wandering ways, went nearly as fast as he came. The athletic department continues to do its best to move on, to advance the conversation to a 2012 season that still holds significant potential.
But numerous ties still exist.
Despite Petrino's deserved reputation of deceitfulness in his coaching loyalties, he has yet to sever communications with his former Razorback players. He calls them with well wishes. He has repeatedly apologized.
"Almost everyone I talked to that was on the field — that did something — he really called," Wright said. "There's a lot of us that shared a couple tears on the phone with coach Petrino."
"It was a relief, I was glad to hear from him. It was good to hear him say that he wanted us to have a successful season," standout running back Knile Davis added. "I could hear the humbleness and hurt in his voice."
This newest development in the Bobby Petrino Saga — the same man who signed a 10-year extension at the University of Louisville, pledging his unwavering devotion, only to leave for the NFL five months later — may appear revelatory. He only left a note when leaving the Atlanta Falcons midseason to accept the Arkansas job. Now he's calling every player on his former roster?
Make no mistake, this not the tale of a tragic figure. Bobby Petrino simply did not depart on his own terms, for once.
There is a moral to the story for Arkansas' players, though.
"Keep your emotions right, keep your soul right. Just try to have a great life outside of football, because once football is taken away you have to go back to being yourself," Wright said. "You can't be a Razorback no more, you can't be a football player no more. You have your last name … I told myself, 'Whatever you do, there's a consequence. Whether the consequence is negative or positive you determine by the decision you make.'"
The Razorbacks progress toward the season under Smith's guidance now, an indisputable downgrade in terms of offensive scheming, but a quirky personality that has diverted the team's attention back to where it needs to be: the 2012 college football season. Arkansas will still play Alabama. LSU still comes to town. Revolving doors can not stop the tides of SEC football; dwelling in the past offers few rewards.
"That's one thing as a coach you'd like to portray and get your kids to understand, is that, gosh, you're only here a short period of time. Take advantage," said Smith, who said he also has been in contact with Petrino over the past few months. "Don't ever look back that I didn't play as hard as I can play in this game, that I missed something that I should have not missed."
Don't let all this talent go to waste. That's the objective entering the fall.
Wilson is the heavy favorite to be considered the conference's top signal-caller. Davis promised, repeatedly, that he is healthy and "still the best running back in the SEC." Receiver Cobi Hamilton has caught a pass or two in his career, and is rated as a potential high NFL Draft selection. Points, no matter who wears the headset, will not be hard to come by.
But now, the leadership is non-definitive — truth be told, it always was. Upperclassmen and an interim coach have stepped into the essential role in college football, and now the Razorbacks' season hinges on the outcome.
Arkansas football's new headmen, poised and self-assured, said all the right things at Wednesday's Media Day session.
Then again, Bobby Petrino could always do that.
The genuine test will come in the form of action, of physical substance.
In a matter of months, the college football world will learn if that's the final lesson the Razorbacks learned from the man they once considered someone worth following.