With the dawn of a new era in Razorback football a mere 48 hours away, we thought it would be a good time to chat with a true Hog expert: ArkansasSports360.com editor Jim Harris. If you'd like to try to convince us there's someone more knowledgeable about all things Razorback (Max Brantley once labeled Jim "the High Priest of Hogdom") ... all we can say is, "Good luck." Many, many thanks to Jim for taking time out of a very busy week to answer our questions. Now, read on for his opinion on when Nutt really should have departed, why the national media threw such a hissy fit when Petrino quit the Falcons and how realistic those national championship dreams may be.
Before we move on to the present day, let's close the book on Houston Nutt. Looking back in 10 years (or more), how will history judge his era?
Fans will look at Nutt’s era, say, a decade from now, and maybe place him behind Broyles, Holtz and maybe just ahead of Hatfield for what he accomplished, even though he did it in a dog-eat-dog conference from top to bottom and in an era of fewer scholarships. They’ll remember it as, at first, a very exciting period, and then it became the most divisive period in UA football. There will always be a segment of fans, particularly a lot in Central Arkansas, who will believe Arkansas railroaded a Little Rock boy out of here who was accomplishing as much as was possible. But probably another equal amount is convinced that while outsiders thought he did “more with less,” he underachieved and basically quit recruiting. And, not unlike Coach Hatfield, he leaned on a lot of assistants who were less than qualified, compared with the guys both Broyles and Holtz had on staff. What happened to those days?
Nutt said he hired assistants first for recruiting, but where was the recruiting at the end? I mean, for a guy so dependent on a running game, how is there not a veteran scholarship fullback on campus now? We know why we’re so dependent on new receivers who probably wouldn’t have come had Arkansas not hired Bobby Petrino. In 10 years, he never attracted a big-time quarterback from out of state, and apparently didn’t want the one big-time quarterback the state produced in his tenure. He had to recruit during a lengthy investigation in the early 2000s, but what happened after 2003? Except for one year of the 10, he always seemed to have great running backs, though. During the middle years, he had the best secondary athletes I think we’d ever seen in Fayetteville, but on the whole, defense always seemed to be an afterthought in recruiting. The development of offensive linemen was outstanding.
Arkansas has produced more pros during his tenure than at anytime, so either the staff must have been great at developing players or the UA’s recruiting was seriously underrated by the out-of-state raters of recruiting. He made two conference championship games, and had a great chance to win one of them; the other was an overachieving team that made it and was simply crushed by talent. He started with a bang, and he re-energized Hog fans who were apathetic at the end of the Ford era, and if we could blot out the last half of Nutt’s tenure, I think he’d be held in higher esteem by a great many fans. I think he should have departed after the 2003 season, frankly. Nevertheless he made people care again, in great numbers.
Compared with his predecessors Holtz, Hatfield, Crowe, Ford and Nutt, how good or bad of a situation has Bobby Petrino inherited?
Maybe slightly similar to Hatfield, though Hatfield ran off 10 or so players before the 1984 season got started. There were some Holtz recruits he just wasn’t going to deal with. Surprisingly, only about four players – at my last count – haven’t hung in there with Petrino’s team this preseason camp.
Hatfield had a talented senior quarterback in Brad Taylor, some decent backs to run his flexbone package, and a couple of dependable receivers. I don’t remember there being a lot of talent on defense, especially in the D-line, but the linebacking situation was a lot better.
Holtz inherited maybe the most talent ever on a Hog team at one time, though I’m not sure anybody (writers, etc.) realized that at the time, since a good group had just graduated. Jimmy Johnson had recruited a lot of those guys, so you know he found some speed. But the thing about Holtz in that first season was, he just blew me away (and pretty much everyone else) with his play-calling. You never saw a lot of that stuff coming. And Monte Kiffin was just a genius coaching the defense. No way Arkansas should have been as close to No. 1 Texas in that 1977 game at Fayetteville. That was just two genius coaches on the UA side at work and some guys persuaded to play beyond their perceived abilities. Same with the Orange Bowl at the end of that season. (Thanks for letting me relive those days, guys. Still warms my heart to think about the ‘77 season, probably my all-time favorite).
You know, Jack Crowe inherited a team with a senior quarterback and even a star senior receiver and a future NFL player at tailback, and he was a darn-good offensive coach. Meanwhile the defense was deplorable. Couldn’t stop anyone, even the mediocre Southwest Conference teams. Crowe did have experienced linebackers though. Petrino does not. Uh-oh.
Ford inherited a lot more players than did Crowe or Petrino. Crowe had recruited some athletes in his short stay, and his 1992 recruiting class was the base for the 1995 SEC West championship.
How long of a honeymoon period does Petrino get?
If we’re still saying that 6-6 will be a good season for him in 2010, the disenchantment will be in full force during that season. I think if he’s recruited well enough to make up for the holes he inherited, then you’ll see them make an upturn that season, particularly with Florida off the schedule. These first two years, Arkansas will have to be awfully good just to reach 8-4 with the schedule it plays. At least they were smart enough to move Texas off in 2009. That schedule would have been ridiculous. There is nothing about the 2008 schedule after the first game that I think is a piece of cake, either, including Louisiana-Monroe. At least everybody should be excited about every game, no matter what the record is.
Anyway, the grace period is two years, and let’s see an upturn in overall talent and experience starting in 2010, while also realizing that Bama will have made a big upturn by then, and Auburn and LSU will always have players to keep them competitive under their present coaches. Now, as far as the dreams people have that Bobby Petrino is going to have Arkansas competing for a national championship – well, maybe Arkansas will play itself into the mix every five years or so, but I think to believe Arkansas will be a national title contender every year starting in Year 4 or so, that’s unrealistic.
We've all read and written a good deal about the reaction of the national sports media to Petrino leaving the Falcons and joining the Razorbacks. Why do you think their reaction was so explosive?
For one, none of the media really knows him or has dealt much with him. Also, I believe between Arthur Blank’s friends in PR from running The Home Depot and his Falcons’ PR office, it was pretty much going to be a blitzkrieg for Petrino when he left. I mean, he didn’t appear he wanted to fight it, and who in Arkansas was going to fight it for him? Blank and the Falcons were handed the perfect way to overcome the Michael Vick situation the very week all the really bad stuff went down – and, ironically, that was probably what finally pushed Petrino over the edge to realize that he was in a no-win situation. Blank also showed how two-faced he could be in dealing with his head coaches, but the NFL columnists still jumped to his defense.
As for Pat Forde, an ESPN college writer, he seemed to have an axe to grind from Petrino’s Louisville days and just let him have it, more than once. Forde’s ego is as big as a college press box, so it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has watched Petrino in these first few months at Arkansas, that he didn’t embrace Forde at Louisville and treat him like Grantland Rice or Red Smith or God’s gift to sports writing. He doesn’t treat anyone like that. You’re not his friend. You’re not his enemy. You’re doing your job and he’s doing his, but he’s going to focus 99.9 percent on his job, not yours. Apparently, Forde had a problem with that back in his Louisville Courier-Journal days. The Mack Browns, Urban Meyers, Tommy Tubervilles, the Pete Carrolls — those guys are probably Forde’s favorites, and fact is, those guys just know how to play the media game with the columnists and such.
Do you worry at all that Petrino will somehow "screw over" the Razorback program?
Screw it over? Petrino? I think it’s been screwed over, and by more than just the departed coach and staff. I saw a quote on a message board – yeah, a lot of classic quotes come out of those places. One guy said, “What does it say about the previous coach when the cupboard is considered bare 10 years into his program?” You had a couple of kingmakers who were willing to keep Arkansas plugging along at 7-5 and 8-4 with the occasional 4-7 or 5-6 thrown in, and convince the Razorback Nation to accept this, just so they could “run” the program -- so one could continue to the bitter end to feel like he was still coaching, and the other could feel like he was an “owner” (if a college football team can be “owned”) like Jerry Jones. I guess a college football team can be “owned,” and the same sort of situation could have ruined Auburn a few years back. Keep watching to see what happens with Oklahoma State, for that matter.
I firmly believe Petrino will do the best he can possibly do while at Arkansas. He may not have it in him to be this great recruiter or closer that a lot of Hog fans hope he is, though he closed pretty well on some guys last February. If you’re meaning, will Petrino jump at the first better offer that comes around, I’m not so sure that’s really what he’s about. Would he like to be coaching at LSU or Auburn already? Of course, the proof of that is out there. But no one stays at Louisville a lifetime, and no one stays at a college as an assistant for a lifetime if they’re goal is to one day be a head coach of a big-time program. I think he’s found that Arkansas reminds him more of his roots, and Arkansas football in its most successful days has been about guys being coached up and performing better than they even thought they could, and that’s Petrino’s style. He’s a heckuva lot more about coaching than he is about getting all the available talent that’s out there. That, to me, would be how to describe Nick Saban, who I do think is a great defensive mind but is more geared toward trotting out better players than the other guy. We’d all in some form or fashion like that, but there’s way too much evidence over the years that the better guys don’t always win. It’s about persuading a guy that he’s better than he believes he is, and that the team is better as a team than it is if everybody approaches it as an individual. It’s about coaching technique, and it’s about preparation, and it’s about convincing your guys that, everything else being equal, they’re going to be luckier than the other guy.
Finally, give us your take on the upcoming season. What are your predictions for the Hogs' overall and conference records?
Today, all things being equal, Arkansas is good enough to win at least five games on paper on talent. Then it boils down to, with all the hard work they put in and with Petrino’s abilities, will this team feel tougher and more confident as they improve (and if they avoid key injuries) going into November. The schedule is not unlike most of the years with Houston Nutt, where if Arkansas can just not -- to borrow a Nutt phrase -- let go of the rope, they can be successful from Oct. 18 all the way up to LSU. That’s exciting to think about. It sounds like I’ve been drinking the Kook-Aid too much, too.
There are just far too many holes on defense, and Arkansas is going to find itself behind more than ahead in most games, and then it falls on Casey Dick and the offense. Are they going to give up turnovers on their end of the field trying to make too much happen in the passing game to get back in the game? That, too, is exciting to think about, because it’s all so unknown. We think we know what kind of quarterback Casey Dick is, but that was under an entirely different mind-set where he wasn’t asked to make plays. But he still made them against LSU. Then he didn’t make them against Missouri. Now he’s a senior, and as far as playing experience he’s really a junior. He could have used a redshirt year in there, but that didn’t work out.
So, enough with the what if’s: Arkansas will go 6-6 overall this season, play in Birmingham in the Papa John’s Bowl and win. In the SEC, they’ll go 3-5, winning at Kentucky, over Ole Miss and at Mississippi State. Or they might win also at South Carolina too. See, it’s so unknown.(more at www.razorbackexpats.com)