Petrino saga latest in swirling soap opera that is Arkansas football
Frank Broyles was certain he knew the reason, all those years ago. His Razorbacks had somehow lost the Big Shootout -- their biggest game ever, before or since -- and he returned home to learn why things had gone so terribly awry. The old coach's explanation still makes as much sense as anything else for, well, almost everything that has happened since.
To understand the Fall of Bobby Petrino -- which is just another laugh-while-they-cry episode in the swirling soap opera that is Arkansas football -- we need to start with the bigger picture, in another era, when the Hogs' last, best chance for ultimate glory was ripped cruelly away.
In a time with a new, Armageddon-arrives theme for each and every week of the football season, it's hard to explain just how big the Big Shootout actually was on Dec. 6, 1969. It was made-for-TV when there was very little college football on TV. It was unbeaten No. 1 vs. unbeaten No. 2 in the last game of the regular season. The president flew in to Fayetteville to watch. A future president was there with him. Billy Graham showed up and gave the invocation. As the nation watched on ABC, the Longhorns pulled off an amazing fourth-quarter comeback.
Texas 15, Arkansas 14 left an indelible scar on the psyche of an entire state. Arkansans have been waiting for anvils to drop from the sky ever since. And sure enough, they keep falling. It's enough to drive anyone mad. Right now, we're all transfixed by Petrino's sudden, spectacular demise, which started when the Boss Hog drove his Harley into a ditch, and unraveled from there. Each new revelation has been more stunning. A blonde beauty was along for the ride. Petrino had just hired her to work in the football office. And who is this other woman with the title "Miss Motorcycle Mania"? Who knows what else might be coming?
No one who knows the Razorbacks should have been surprised. When it comes to Arkansas football, the steady state is chaos.
Did you see the on-campus rally of fans for Petrino last Monday night? Maybe 200 people showed up. They called the Hogs and waved signs with messages like "What's Wrong With Scoring In The Offseason?" Also, someone brought a dog, painted cardinal and white. Really, someone painted a dog. (This is not the canine we should be concerned with, but we'll get to that later.) But Monday was not the pivot point that tilted everything toward madness. Nor was Tuesday, when Petrino was fired (which prompted a couple of guys on scooters to circle campus with blonde blow-up dolls riding along; we're not sure whose side they were on, but the battle continues to rage).
Sure, you can call the Hogs crazy -- fans, coaches, the entire scene -- but this is simply business as usual. It's just that usually, no one outside the borders notices (and yeah, that's part of the reason for this beautiful mess, too). Arkansans care as deeply as any fans in the country. Maybe more, considering the meager return on their investment. With apologies to Gus Malzahn and his Arkansas State Red Wolves, there's no competition. As a friend told me: "It's all we have." Everyone is a Razorback, and almost everyone is desperately engrossed in the cause.
That's the only unifying principle, though. Everything else is up for vigorous debate. Without a rival, the Hogs fight with each other. Even after athletic director Jeff Long's carefully laid-out reasons for firing Petrino, a very vocal segment of the fan base still believes he should be coaching. "Forgive, forget and win," one of those protestors said.
Before Petrino, there were Nutts and Anti-Nutts, and people were either on or off the Gus Bus (which, of course, is the last time many of you paid attention). Always, there's the ongoing Great Stadium Debate between Fayetteville and Little Rock. And if you want a good fight, start a conversation about changing the uniforms.
There's always something simmering, some serious schism, with potential for more. We'll just go ahead and say it: More Razorback fans are nutty -- and nuttier -- than anywhere else. Other schools' fans track planes during coaching searches. But if you haven't attempted to create a coaching search by filing FOI requests for your guy's phone records, please sit back down and keep reading. Not you, Mr. Updyke. But everyone else, please understand: A Best of Finebaum show can erupt at any moment.
It's hard to know whether the atmosphere is a direct result of all of the disappointments, or the disappointments are byproducts of the atmosphere. Probably both, and it might have started with the Big Shootout. The Hogs' lone football national championship came in 1964. They almost won it all again in 1965. But since that loss to Texas in 1969, the never-ending story has been falling short. And when they've gotten close, falling hard.
Lou Holtz won big, but when he said stuff like Fayetteville was "15 minutes from Tulsa ... by phone," you knew the honeymoon wouldn't last for long. Ken Hatfield, a favorite son if ever there was one, preached but wouldn't pass, and couldn't win the big one. Jack Crowe lost to The Citadel and got fired the next day. Danny Ford couldn't get it done, either. Each situation was different, but the theme was consistent. (Maybe it's not just football: Even the 1994 national championship in basketball ended a few years later with the best coach in school history fired, and suing the school.)
And Houston Nutt -- well, after a promising start, the program slowly disintegrated. He was eventually done in by a weird, compelling mixture of self-inflicted wounds and fan discontent that, in the most extreme cases, turned from talk to active sabotage. It's probably when many outsiders first recognized just how, uh, nutty Arkansas is.
Then Petrino arrived. While the national storyline was the way he left the Atlanta Falcons, the local news has been how he was rebuilding the program into a power. After 21 wins in the last two years, a top five finish last season and with a loaded team coming back for a run at real glory next fall, Razorback fans were daring to believe. No wonder everyone finally seemed to be on the same page. There wasn't even much carping when they decided to move the LSU game from Little Rock to Fayetteville; anything for Bobby. A billboard along I-40 read: "Thanks Coach Petrino for bringing winning and excitement back to Razorback football."
In a way, the unity explains Petrino's demise. He probably thought he could do anything, and get away with everything -- and he almost could. But the big picture requires a deeper explanation, and more powerful forces. That billboard also included a quote from Petrino:
"Make no mistake about it -- it's our turn."
The mistake was in not looking into the sky, right then, for the next anvil. That Petrino's wreck occurred April 1 only reminds us how foolish it was to think anything had changed. But again, the question is: Why? For that, we must go back to Broyles.
The root cause of the continuing chaos was not the Big Shootout. According to Broyles, that terrible loss might simply have been the first byproduct of a very unfortunate incident. That morning before the game, Graham, the famed evangelist, had brunch at Broyles' home in Fayetteville. Though the coach wasn't there -- he was with the team -- by all accounts it was a pleasant visit. Except for one thing.
"Our dog," Broyles told me a few years ago, "bit his son."
Ned Graham, Billy's 11-year-old son, was nipped by Lady, the Broyles' usually gentle German shepherd. The injury wasn't serious. There's no indication the evangelist was insulted. But Broyles was mortified.
"That's why we lost," he said.
He seemed very serious. And given everything that has happened since, we should seriously consider the Big Bite Theory. Sure, it's crazy.
It fits right in.