By Jacob Cooper
It sounds like a teaser for an episode of HBO’s True Blood, but Arkansas fans found out just how true it is on Saturday against the University of Louisiana at Monroe in Little Rock: You can’t outrun what you really are.
In the Hogs’ case, there were a lot of things they—we, I guess I should say as a lifelong fan—had been outrunning for the last four years. Bobby Petrino’s karma, mediocrity, and the fickle nature of fandom. However, as I sat in the stands in the south end zone of War Memorial Stadium, watching the eighth-ranked Razorbacks lose to a middling Sun Belt team, reality finally came crashing down.
All fans are delusional. Some more than others. But Arkansas fans took delusional to another level this offseason. We truly believed that the Hogs still had a chance—heck, some fans even thought a better chance—of competing for a national championship after Bobby Petrino’s fateful motorcycle accident and subsequent firing in April. Somehow losing arguably the sharpest offensive mind in football, not just college but all football, was going to be a positive. He was too hard on the players, we said. He didn’t pay enough attention to the defense. Nick Saban was in his head. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. None of that mattered, though.
What we failed to realize—that’s not entirely true; we knew it, but we just couldn’t acknowledge it after what he had done—was that Petrino was a damn good football coach. The best football coach ever in Fayetteville. He may have meant more to the University of Arkansas than Eric Taylor meant to East Dillon High School. If that’s possible.
The ironic thing about Petrino’s departure was that it wasn’t his decision. The national media lambasted Arkansas for hiring Petrino away from the Atlanta Falcons. He’s just going to leave for a better job in the next couple of years, the media told us. The Razorbacks were supposed to be just another stepping stone in Petrino’s journey to the pinnacle—which is hard to say now whether the pinnacle for Petrino was a fat contract, prestige, or an attractive side piece. Call me gullible, but I believe that Petrino found a home in Arkansas. Yet, in the end, the media was still right; Petrino found a way to screw the Hogs.
With Petrino the Hogs were a top tier program, Arkansas fans told anybody who would listen. Probably the third best program in the country behind Alabama and LSU. It only made sense. In the last two full seasons, we had lost games to Alabama, LSU, Cam Newton, and a team full of ineligible players. Three of those teams played for the national championship during that same span. This was the year that something special was going to happen.
Instead, something very ordinary happened. A coach screwed up. Got fired. And reality caught up with a pretender.
Whether it was Petrino’s reputation or other coaches stressing to recruits what we couldn’t see, that Arkansas was building a glass house solely on the genius of one man, the Razorbacks’ on-the-field success never translated in recruiting. Despite its impressive win-loss record, Arkansas’s talent was falling further behind other teams in the SEC, not just Alabama and LSU. With each double-digit win season, the Hogs were inching closer to mediocrity.
Enter the goofy John L. Smith and his bevy of wacky sayings, including the now infamous “Get your piss hot” and “Do I look stupid?” question at SEC media days. Somehow a man who had been fired from his last head coaching job over half a decade ago and was beginning his swan song at his alma mater (Weber State) was supposed to provide stability and leadership to a top tier SEC team in the program’s most crucial time. Paul Petrino, Bobby’s little brother and understudy, was supposed to do what his older brother couldn’t do: call enough run plans to close out close games. Paul Haynes replaced the much maligned Willy Robinson at defensive coordinator, revamping a flawed approach and stressing fundamentals.
However, when the game was on the line against ULM, Smith looked like a washed up coach over his head against an inferior opponent; Paul Petrino had his redshirt freshman backup quarterback Brandon Allen throwing on every play in the second half (he didn’t complete a pass in his last fifteen pass attempts), despite running back Dennis Johnson clearly being the best player on the field; and Haynes continually had his defensive players rushing too far up the field, ignoring quarterback contain. Apparently Haynes didn’t watch the Arkansas-Texas A&M game last season—and he definitely didn’t have Bobby there to subtly suggest that his defense should keep contain.
Arkansas didn’t become a second tier program because of its 34-31 overtime loss to ULM—it was a process played out over four years—but September 8th, 2012, was the night that Arkansas fans could no longer deny the truth. We aren’t competing for a national championship in 2012, we aren’t a top tier program (especially without Bobby Petrino), and we aren’t the greatest fan base in college football as we like to claim. That is, at least one Arkansas fan realized these things, as thousands of other fans in War Memorial Stadium continued doing the wave and hitting beach balls as four years of momentum ground to a stop on Markham Street in Little Rock.