Entering the 2008 football season, Arkansas fans merely wanted to win more than we lost. After a dismal end to the Houston Nutt Era in Fayetteville, Bobby Petrino was hired and presented with a monumental task. We asked him to take a program spiraling to the bottom of the SEC – devoid of talent at multiple positions – and stop its descent. The expectation was that he would do just that and create a program built to compete for titles. While the Hogs finished 2008 with a 5-7 record, just two seasons later he did it – Arkansas had a team ready to compete for SEC and BCS championships. The 2012 Hogs were supposed to be the team that could finally get Arkansas over its 47-year drought and win a national championship.
Instead, athletic director Jeff Long is faced with finding a new miracle worker.
Arkansas has 9 more games on its schedule, and none of them look like walks in the park. Rutgers arrives in Fayetteville next weekend off a Thursday night road win. They have more time to heal and prepare for their first foray into SEC country in the BCS era. After that it’s back-to-back road trips at Texas A&M and Auburn. Neither of those teams looks like world beaters. Of course, neither does Arkansas. John L. Smith and his coaching staff have enormous challenges facing them this week, and those only grow with another disappointing performance this weekend. With his confused, rambling press conferences one has to wonder if John L. Smith has the ability to rally this team on any level.
Petrino drove his career, marriage, and Razorback football into a ditch.
On several levels it really is hard to believe this is happening. An ill-conceived relationship, a motorcycle accident, and – the capper – multiple lies to his boss all forced Bobby Petrino out the door. A short-term hire designed to keep as much continuity as possible in the program has backfired, and now the Razorbacks face the bleak prospect of merely fighting to make the postseason. With how far and fast the program has fallen, I have to wonder whether or not the last 2 years have been a mirage. Is it possible that Arkansas had a “soft” 21-5 record in Petrino’s final two years? With the startling lack of talent & depth on defense and confused offensive system, I believe that’s a question worth asking.
In the blink of an eye, the Razorbacks program has gone from national relevance to conference irrelevance. The long-held belief was that when Bobby Petrino left Arkansas – and we all knew he would at some point – the program would at least be in better position than it was when he found it. Looking at the current state of the program, that belief may be hard to defend. The fan base has growing fractures, there is in-fighting amongst major boosters, and the talent level does not appear to reflect that of a contending program. Sounds a lot like 2007, doesn’t it? I certainly believed that the Arkansas head coaching job would be a very appealing one, able to tempt the most discerning of coaches. I now fear that may have been an overly optimistic assessment.
Jeff Long has 10 more weeks to scout talent and gauge interest. I certainly hope John L. Smith finds a way to turn things around and create a 10-win team. The problem, of course, is that is about as likely as Smith keeping the job even if he did manage a 9-game winning streak. Even with a healthy Tyler Wilson calling the shots on offense, it’s hard to imagine the Razorbacks re-emerging in 2012 as a team worthy of national relevance.
As a fan, it’s hard to feel anything other than enormous disappointment right now. Those emotions, for me, have quickly been followed by anger, humiliation, and hopelessness. Today, on another dreary day in Arkansas that reflects the mood of Razorback Nation, marks the unofficial beginning of the Who’s the Next Razorbacks Head Coach season. We asked in the preseason whether or not John L. Smith was the right hire. The only thing that unites Razorbacks fans right now is our collective, unanimous response: No. He was not the right hire. Jeff Long cannot afford to make that same mistake in December. The stakes have never been higher.