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It was April Fool's Day, so in hindsight maybe Arkansas fans should've known to keep their breath held, fingers crossed and perhaps offered up a couple extra prayers at that morning's Sunday service.
The football program that has the potential and passion to compete for national titles, yet never seems to quite get it altogether at once, was, at last, staring realistically at the top. The Hogs returned a top-10 – maybe top-five – team for the 2012 season. It had an innovative winner in coach Bobby Petrino. Recruiting was pretty strong as Petrino found the right players for his system. And Arkansas would play both Alabama and LSU at home.
The upcoming season was the most highly anticipated in years. The Razorbacks looked capable of their best campaign in what, two or three decades? Maybe even dating back to the Frank Broyles days of the late 1960s?
Then on April 1, Petrino fired up his Harley. Jessica Dorrell, his mistress and recently hired football staff member, climbed on back. About 20 miles from Fayetteville, on a rural stretch of Highway 18 in Crosses, Ark., Petrino lost control of the bike, skidded off the road and wrecked in a ditch.
He told police a "gust of wind" made him lose control.
Figuratively, at least, that wind was still blowing through Arkansas' football program Saturday, when Louisiana-Monroe stormed back from 21 points down to upset the Hogs and doom interim coach John L. Smith to a week, at least, of doubts. This week's game against No. 1 Alabama has now become one of the most desperate contests in recent college football.
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This program, cursed with nearly six months of bad breaks, bad publicity and bad vibes, is desperate for a miracle.
And since the Hogs could still win out and perhaps still play for a national title, not all is lost, yet, for Arkansas.
Other than its star coach, its positive fan unity and its confidence in the Smith-interim coach experiment. Not to mention most of the hope that this is still salvageable and not just part of the cruel joke of self-immolation that plagues an otherwise powerhouse program. Oh, and the fear this year of purgatory and potential recruiting backlash, means everything has to start over again.
"We still believe in John L. 100 percent," tight end Chris Gragg told the Arkansas News on Monday.
Good to hear at least somebody still does.
There are no good reasons why Arkansas can't compete for national titles. The institutional support is there. The facilities are good. The fan passion is as intense as anywhere. The Razorbacks are a prideful lot. The state may not produce the sheer number of top recruits as Texas or Florida or Louisiana, but it delivers plenty of good ones, enough to feed just one high-major local program. Besides, you get someone from out of state to walk on campus and they tend to want to stay.
Fayetteville is a beautiful place surrounded by fabulous wealth and business opportunity – thanks to the presence of two Fortune 100 companies (Walmart and Tyson Foods) – just a few miles from campus. You don't find that in most college towns.
Yet it never seems to come together. Time and again the fans and players and students deserved better than the coaches and administrators delivered. It's been a series of starts and stops, every approach to true national prominence undone by something that seems so avoidable.
That's what made the Petrino wreck so disappointing and polarizing. Here it was again; one person's actions derailing the entire operation.
Since 1990, Arkansas has not won a single conference title. During a 20-year stretch from 1990-2010, Arkansas compiled a 126-112-2 record – a rounded average of 6-6 (6.3-5.6). Overall, despite above-average potential, the program has been almost perfectly average.
Not that there haven't been moments.
Houston Nutt compiled three nine-win seasons and one 10-win season. He also oversaw two losing campaigns and eventually lost support in part because of a strange text-messaging story uncovered by a fan that saw the coach and a local female TV reporter in near constant contact. Nutt wound up resigning one year after playing for the SEC title and three days after upsetting top-ranked LSU.
It somehow seemed par for the course, the self-inflicted program stopper.
So now here was Petrino, who left the Atlanta Falcons in midseason amid a volley of anger to take the job and rebuild the program. Over the past two seasons, Arkansas went 21-5, with all of the losses coming to teams ranked in the top seven at the time of kickoff – two of them eventual national champions.
In terms of personality, Petrino didn't have the greatest reputation nationally, but he was Arkansas' guy. This is a state that's used to dealing with mostly undeserved national scorn. What's one more barb? Besides, even the critics couldn't deny he was a great coach. At age 51, Petrino also wasn't going anywhere. Sustained excellence finally appeared within sight for the Razorbacks.
And the Razorback fans knew it. They knew it so much that even after he crashed his bike, even after the story of the former volleyball player on the back of the bike came out, even after it was understood the hiring of Dorrell was at odds with virtually every fair-labor practice known to government employees, a lot of people wanted to keep Petrino. They set up Facebook pages and peppered university officials with emails.
Of course, Petrino couldn't stay. The crash and affair were one thing. The hiring of Dorrell and misleading his bosses – notably, athletic director Jeff Long – were another.
So, Petrino was out. In a gamble of a move, John L. Smith, the former Louisville and Michigan State headman who'd been an assistant for the Razorbacks, was hired. Long was banking on an experienced coach making the most of a talented team, maybe even shocking the world with a run at the title. Smith was signed to a 10-month deal. This was the ultimate roll of the dice.
There was more bad karma though. Smith bailed after just four months on the job as head coach of Weber State, his alma mater. He was facing bankruptcy from some failed real-estate development projects, and money was a clear motivator. The Razorbacks once again faced criticism.
Perhaps more troubling, was the fact that while Smith can talk a good game, he did little else during his previous stop at Michigan State.
The hiring felt forced. It felt frantic. Wasn't the smarter hire Paul Petrino, the offensive coordinator? Was he being passed over just because it was his brother who screwed up? Then again, was there really a good option?
The questions raged all summer. Hope overwhelmed doubt. The roster was loaded. And John L was funny, wasn't he? Maybe Arkansas would have enough in the season's third week when Alabama came calling. Maybe this could work.
Then in week two, along came Louisiana-Monroe.
So here comes Saturday, the big game with the big worries. Star quarterback Tyler Wilson suffered a head injury against ULM and his ability to play is still unknown. Faith in Smith is mostly gone. The message boards can be politely described as nuclear. There are now even more people that want Petrino rehired, forget the Harley crash. You wonder how many of them wear Razorback uniforms.
The big season is in big trouble. Arkansas instantly fell from No. 8 to out of the poll. ESPN's "College Game Day" scrapped plans for Saturday and headed to Knoxville.
"Don't be jumping off the bandwagon," Smith pleaded with fans this week. "We need that 12th man."
He needs to hope the 12th man doesn't spend the game booing every small miscue. It tends to adversely affect the likelihood of an upset.
"It is crucial for us from a mental standpoint to pump back, bounce back, to get ready to go and go to practice with an energy about us," Smith said. "That's the biggest thing: the mental aspect. … If you're not a part of this and you're not totally in the boat, then get the heck out of here."
Smith can only hope some players and coaches aren't already gone. The truth is, the dream season could still happen. The program the fans deserve could still come together. Win out, finish 12-1 champions of the SEC with victories over 'Bama, LSU and South Carolina (perhaps twice), and they have a case for the BCS title game appearance even with the Monroe debacle.
This is still possible. Really. Then again, this is still Arkansas.
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