FAYETTEVILLE — Athletic director Jeff Long used one word to describe 2012 for the Arkansas football program last week. Eventful.
It was an apt choice, but certainly not the only appropriate way to sum up the roller coaster ride. Unpredictable, tumultuous, scandalous, and disappointing are all terms that can fit a year sure to be remembered as one of the wildest in school history.
“It was certainly a year full of surprises,” Long said.
The calendar year began with so much promise for the Razorbacks after a 29-17 win against Kansas State in last January’s Cotton Bowl. It ended as one in which Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema became its third head coach in eight months, thanks to Bobby Petrino’s career- and program-shaking motorcycle accident on April 1 and John L. Smith’s rocky run as his replacement during the 2012 season.
It’s the kind of year no one could have predicted for a program inching its way into the national title picture under Petrino’s guidance, wrapping up the 2011 season with an 11-2 record and top five finish in the Associated Press poll. Count Long, who took a look back at 2012 during an interview last week, among those stunned.
“I felt we still had great potential in front of us, we had a great future,” Long said of his thoughts on the program at the time. “We had built something over the last five years and we were getting in a position to be where we should be every year and that is vying for (an SEC West) title and hopefully winning an SEC championship.”
It’s clear now those plans, at least in the short term, ended when Petrino’s motorcycle ran off Highway 16 in the community of Crosses on April 1.
The wreck catapulted Arkansas into the national spotlight, something that only intensified when the whole story was unveiled in the days that followed.
No, Petrino wasn’t alone on the motorcycle when it crashed into a wood pile off the side of the road. Jessica Dorrell, a 25-year-old newly hired football department employee was riding with him. It’s a detail Petrino failed to disclose to his box — and the public — in the accident’s aftermath. So, too, was the fact he had an inappropriate relationship with Dorrell, who he had formally hired a week earlier for an on-campus recruiting coordinator position that had over 100 candidates.
Shock, disbelief and frustration surrounded a program that had gone 21-5 over the previous two seasons under Petrino. It quickly became one teetering, though, without the head coach who was the orchestrator of the success.
“Some days I wake up and I’m like, ‘Is this really happening,’” Arkansas running back Knile Davis said at the time. “Sometimes it’s just mind-boggling.”
Petrino was placed on paid leave on April 5 by Long, who conducted a thorough review of matter. And, during an emotional late-night press conference a few days later, Long announced Petrino had been terminated as Arkansas’ coach.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Long said of the decision last week. “It was very unfortunate. I felt very badly for coach Petrino and his family. But the decision, once the facts were known, was a decision I would make every time.”
Long stood by his next decision as well. Smith, who had worked as an assistant on Petrino’s Arkansas staff for three seasons, was called back to the Razorbacks after recently being named head coach as Weber State, his alma mater.
Smith, regarded as a player’s coach, was thought to be the perfect solution to keep Arkansas’ success intact. He had head coaching experience. He knew every player on the roster. And he had worked with eight of Arkansas’ nine assistant coaches.
Players and coaches all felt it would make for a seamless transition.
“It’s frustrating,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said of Petrino’s firing at the time. “You’re knocking on the door. It’s part of the reason I decided to come back was because I felt like our foundation and everything here was very firm. Top program in the country. Obviously, this is a setback and frustrating.
“But I think we’re able to move on and press on without him.”
It’s now clear that wasn’t the case. Smith’s tenure as Arkansas’ coach resulted in personal financial trouble off the field when the coach filed for bankruptcy and claimed more than $40 million in liabilities. It also resulted in one of the most disappointing seasons in school history on the field.
The slide started with the unthinkable loss to Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock on Sept. 8 and by the time the month ended, the Razorbacks were 1-4. By the time it was over, Arkansas, which was a top 10 team in preseason polls, finished 4-8.
“The responsibility to the players was what I felt most,” Long said of his decision to hire Smith in hopes of maintaining continuity. “I felt like the senior group earned the chance to have a great season. And again, we thought that’s where we were headed and unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way. … It was very difficult to stand on the sidelines so to speak and watch a team struggle.”
Defensive woes, injuries and offensive weaknesses all played a part in the program’s first eight-loss season since 1990. But when it was over after a 20-13 loss to LSU in the season finale, most coaches and players still managed to hold their heads high.
“I’ve never been more proud of a team and organization than I am right now,” Arkansas center Travis Swanson said after the season-ending loss to LSU. “Just with all the stuff we’ve been through, dating back to a year ago and just how we’ve handled it. A lot of teams would’ve just stopped and rolled over and said all right we give up, but it seemed like every day we just kept fighting and fighting and fighting.”
Said Wilson: “As rough in some aspects as this year’s been — and let’s not sugarcoat it, it’s been tough, it’s been a grind to come to work and prepare every single day — but you learn so much during it. So I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
And through it all, Long said Arkansas football still has a “bright future.”
Bielema is assembling a staff Long believes will rival the best in the program’s history. Construction on the football operations center, which figures to be a crown jewel for the program as it competes in the SEC, is gaining steam and Arkansas has moved into the evaluation stage for potential expansion of Razorback Stadium. Long said strong support from the passionate fanbase has been key to any successes to date and remains vital to continued growth for Arkansas football.
“I’m really excited about the combination of facilities, the combination of people, the combination of the investment we’ve made in our program,” Long said.
Forbes also recently recognized Arkansas football among the 10 most valuable programs in the country for 2012 (estimated at $83 million). Although, the publication did acknowledge a disastrous season on the field in 2012 could lead to a significant dip in value when the 2013 rankings are revealed next winter.
There’s no doubt Arkansas endured a challenging year in 2012 thanks in large part to the scandal that shook the foundation of the program. It’s clear there were setbacks both on and off the field as a result of the decisions made.
Time will tell if Arkansas is able to return to where it was in January, inching closer to winning championships. But Long is confident Arkansas football is in good shape, and in good hands, once again as the Razorbacks move into 2013.
“The most satisfying thing for me is that coach Bielema is what I believed him to be and what he purported to be,” Long said. “He’s demonstrated in the decisions he’s made over the last several weeks that he’s a passionate individual, he cares about the student athletes a great deal and he’s passionate about bringing something to us that we haven’t had and that’s that SEC championship.”