Arkansas searching for answers with dream season already lost

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They all called, from Arkansas chancellor G. David Gearhart to mega-donor and Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones to Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, who learned to call the Hogs as a business administration student at Arkansas in the early 1970s.


They came for a "topping off" ceremony on the eve of the Razorbacks' game against top-ranked Alabama. This ceremony was originally intended to kick off a weekend that might see Arkansas vault into national title contention. A crane would lift a beam into place on the construction site that will become the Arkansas football program's palatial, $40 million facility. The muckety-mucks, many of whom wrote the checks to make the construction of that facility and the recently approved $23 million "Student-athlete Success Center" possible, would revel in the ascension of their beloved Razorbacks.


Even a week earlier, on the eve of a game against lightly regarded Louisiana-Monroe, no one expected the ceremony would close with an explanation from athletic director Jeff Long. Then the Warhawks stunned the Razorbacks in overtime. An explanation, even if not explicitly demanded, was certainly required. Here, in its entirety, is the explanation Long provided.

"I want to say a few things about last week's football game. It's been the topic of everybody around this state and around Fayetteville. I want to make it very clear to all of you here today with us. One game does not make a season. One game does not define a program. One game does not indicate the success or failure of a program. One game does not cause me to doubt the direction of our athletics program. With your help, we're building a program that can compete year-in and year-out with the very best in this conference and in this nation. Six years running, the national championship in football has come from this conference. We'll be successful. We'll not be deterred. We'll not be discouraged. And make no mistake about it, the future of the University of Arkansas Razorback athletics is very bright."

All of them -- the trustees, the big-money donors, even the head of state -- cheered. Then they called the hogs again. The following afternoon, Alabama beat Arkansas 52-0.

John L. Smith, the head coach Long hired after he fired Bobby Petrino in April amid a salacious scandal, could find no words to describe the loss or to console his team. Tyler Wilson, the all-everything quarterback who missed the Alabama game because his linemen failed to block Louisiana-Monroe's pass rushers a week earlier, knew exactly what to say. He said some of his teammates quit, and he wasn't wrong. Later, Wilson would say he delivered that message through the media because he knew the Arkansas people needed to hear it. Someone had to say it. Someone had to prove the Razorbacks gave a damn.

How did it all fall apart so quickly? How did a team set up to be one of the best in school history hit the skids in mid-September?

It's easy to blame Smith, who once parlayed two good seasons at Louisville into the Michigan State job before crashing and burning in East Lansing. Plenty have blamed him. Whether it's the distraction of his recent bankruptcy filing or his poor game-preparation decisions or his insistence that people SMILE! during a period of pigskin mourning, Smith has given his critics an arsenal of ammunition. But it isn't Smith's fault.

Some have blamed Long, who fired Petrino and who hired Smith. Petrino had gone 21-5 the previous two seasons, and with Wilson returning for his senior season and Alabama and LSU coming to Fayetteville, this was Arkansas' best chance to win the SEC West -- a title which would make the Hogs automatic national championship contenders. To listen to some of the callers on Bo Mattingly's statewide radio show, it wasn't a big deal that Petrino manipulated the university's usual hiring process to give his mistress a job and then lied to Long's face after an April 1 motorcycle crash exposed the whole sordid mess. The man won, and that mattered more than the school's integrity or the millions of dollars the school might be on the hook for in hiring discrimination lawsuits had Petrino remained employed. That's what the Petrino apologists think, and they blame Long. But it isn't Long's fault, either.

The blame falls on Petrino, who flushed a potential dream season not because he gave into his libido, but because he let his libido affect the football program's payroll. It was an act of colossal stupidity from a man who, while far from lovable, had proven quite wily when calling plays or building college football programs. Every nadir Arkansas hits this season can be traced back to the moment when Petrino had the brilliant idea that Jessica Dorrell, who had recruited him so well, should assist in the Razorbacks' recruitment of players. Everything else -- the motorcycle crash that exposed the relationship, the firing, the hiring of Smith -- only served to highlight the absurdity of that decision.

Still, some of the heartbreak over the on-field events of the past two weeks is a bit melodramatic. In all the January-to-April excitement about Wilson's decision and Petrino's offensive acumen and tailback Knile Davis' return from injury, certain key losses were glossed over. Without defensive end Jake Bequette, would the Razorbacks be able to rush the passer as well? Who would replace the leadership of linebacker Jerry Franklin or the ball-hawking of safety Tramain Thomas? Is the SEC not a defense-first league, even for the team with the explosive offense? Anyone who watched the Alabama game objectively could see that even had Petrino -- Bobby, not Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino -- called the plays and had Wilson been healthy, the Hogs' defense wouldn't have stopped Alabama enough for Arkansas to win. Taking away the touchdown drive Arkansas gift-wrapped with a snap over punter Dylan Breeding's head, Alabama scored five touchdowns and a field goal on its first nine possessions. Petrino and Wilson would not have matched that pace against one of the nation's top defenses. The Hogs would have faced similar problems against LSU, which also enjoys ramming the ball down the throats of opposing defenses while terrorizing the opposing quarterback with a seemingly endless string of athletic freaks.

So maybe that's the better way to look at this: It's not as big of a mess as it seems, because it didn't cost the Razorbacks what many in Arkansas think it cost them. Arkansas was going to finish No. 3 in the SEC West this year even if Petrino had never been fired and Wilson had never gotten hurt. Looking at the schedule objectively, the Razorbacks can still finish No. 3 in the West. Wilson hopes to be cleared in time to play against Rutgers on Saturday. A win wouldn't count in the conference standings, but it might salve some wounded pride. Then the Hogs face, in order, Texas A&M, Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tulsa. The Aggies are a relative unknown under first-year coach Kevin Sumlin, but the Tigers also went to overtime with Louisiana-Monroe and have an anemic offense. Kentucky and Ole Miss are the worst teams in their respective divisions. By the time the Razorbacks take a break from SEC play to face the Golden Hurricane, they could be 4-1 in the league and 6-2 overall. That's the best-case scenario, but it isn't that far-fetched if Wilson returns to health.

A midseason resurgence probably won't be enough to win Smith the job permanently. Long insists Smith's candidacy will be considered, but the events of the past two weeks have doomed Smith to an exit once his 10-month contract ends. Plenty of rank-and-file fans have called for Smith to be fired now. After all, there is precedent. Long's predecessor, Frank Broyles, once fired football coach Jack Crowe the day after a season-opening loss to The Citadel. But Long believes more chaos won't solve anything. Neither will a weekly evaluation of Smith's performance. "I'm not going to come out each game and talk about the job he's doing," Long said last Friday. "That doesn't do anybody any good in my opinion. We'll play the season out, and then we'll know by the end of the season what direction we're headed."

At the moment, Long is doing exactly what he said he'd do after he fired Petrino: looking for a coach and continuing to raise money to fulfill his $300 million athletic facilities master plan. "We brought coach Smith back there to hold this program together. We were obviously in a very difficult situation at that time," Long said. "He wanted to come back and help us, and that's what he did. I said at the time that I'm conducting a coaching search. That hasn't changed."

Long also understands the recent history of the Arkansas football program. In the year before Long hired Petrino in December 2007, fans had split into factions. One group supported coach Houston Nutt. Another rebelled against Nutt after he chased off offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn -- the beloved former coach at nearby Springdale High -- and quarterback Mitch Mustain following the 2006 season. One fan even used the state's open records law to obtain Nutt's phone records. The records showed the coach had exchanged 2,104 text messages with a local television news anchor in four months, and after that information got out, the conflict between pro-Nutt and anti-Nutt camps escalated and didn't end until Nutt took off for Ole Miss shortly after the 2007 season. This is the fan base Long must please, so it's no wonder he is pleading for unity. "We talk about pulling together and not apart," Long said. "We know with this program in this state, we have to pull together. We've seen what happens when we pull apart."

Long is convinced he has an elite job to offer. The construction outside the stadium suggests the next coach will have a dazzling array of resources with which to build a winning program. That new coach will still have to find a way to compete against Alabama, but remember, the Crimson Tide were the ones losing to Louisiana-Monroe five years ago. Things change, and football is cyclical. That's important to consider after two losses rocked the Arkansas program to its core. "It doesn't make what we're doing any less important or any less correct," Long said. "I think we're on the right path."

Two losses do not define a program. How that program responds to those losses can, though. At the moment, all those who call the hogs face a choice. They can wallow in the mud, or they can raise their voices together and try to make the best of an already lost season.