On the evening of Tuesday, April 10, 2012, Jeff Long stepped to the dais to reveal what had fast become Arkansas's worst-kept secret.
The Razorbacks' athletic director had already been usurped by Twitter, ESPN and any number of other sources, all disclosing that Bobby Petrino's charmed four-year run as the Hogs' fiery football coach was ending. A full hour before the press conference began, one of Petrino's sons had thumbed out the words "soooo pissed" on his Twitter account, a fitting epithet for all interested parties if one ever existed.
So it wasn't much of a newsflash when Long finally read the fateful word "terminated" from his well-crafted statement. In fact, having seen Long's customary stoicism recede a few nights earlier when he placed Petrino on administrative leave, we all had the sense that a man so seemingly principled would not allow his subordinate to become his overlord. This was, in short, one angry man.
And why wouldn't he be? Petrino had done wonders for the Razorback program over four seasons, to say nothing of the subtle makeover he had performed on his own self-image. The perceived ruthless nomad of the coaching world was giving six-figure gifts to hospitals, publicly demonstrating sentiment at the memorial service of Garrett Uekman and, every so often, breaking into a smile. As the seats at Reynolds Razorback Stadium filled, so did the coffers of the Razorback Foundation. The state was Bobby Petrino's oyster, and he was our pearl.
That is, of course, the trap of big-time college athletics: when you become the most recognizable fish in the bowl, your focus tends to wane at the worst possible time. The scandal at Penn State isn't particularly instructive here, but what it did demonstrate is that Joe Paterno's ascension at once rendered him myopic as to in-house affairs. For Paterno, it was an apparent absence of diligence when a prized former assistant was accused of unspeakable acts; Petrino's misstep was personnel-related as well, but it may have been pardonable without the duplicity that shrouded it.
The great misfortune is that Bobby Petrino finally seemed at home after a life on the road, but he went out of his way to wreck that home. The aftermath was pitiful, as a man who commanded this state's sympathy days earlier was now reduced to issuing written mea culpas and forgoing his right to appeal the termination through his spokesperson. Twenty-one wins in two seasons, as it turns out, does not come close to absolving a grown man of childish deceit, nor does years of cultivating goodwill relieve him of an obligation to apologize to an entire state.
Arkansas fans have been predictably stung by this, but regardless of who is selected to succeed Petrino, the program is on its best footing nationally in decades. The oddity of this melodrama is that Petrino enhanced Razorback football's profile even as he was destroying his own. This may or may not mean that a first-class hire is on the way, of course. You'll doubtless recall that in late 2007, we seemed resigned to the fact that Wake Forest's Jim Grobe or Clemson's Tommy Bowden was on his way to Fayetteville, a fact that continues to be trumpeted in the post-Petrino era without necessary context. The program was in ruin then, and only the likes of Grobe or Bowden seemed willing to take on that kind of rebuilding job. Petrino, fortunately, longed to escape the NFL at any cost, and did so without hesitating and without any regard for his own reputation.
The Razorback brand is stronger than it has ever been, and while the timing of this could not be worse, the product that Long is trying to sell could not be better. This team is led by a homegrown senior quarterback who is, in a word, unflappable. An All-SEC tailback is returning from injury with Heisman Trophy designs of his own. A beleaguered defensive unit is slowly improving, and its outlook is brightened by virtue of Petrino making right, proper hires (contrasted with his last one in late March) to fix what ailed it. The prevailing theory from pundits inside and outside this state's borders is that any coach would relish the opportunity to take the reins of this team now, even if he might be hesitant to hold onto them beyond January.
What the 2012 season will bring is a mystery only because it's impossible to project how a disciplined and experienced team can cope with upheaval above it. The Petrino "system," as it were, will presumably be ingrained for the time being because these guys operate well within it, and because recruiting has been obviously geared toward maintaining it. When Nutt left in 2007, so went the McFadden-Jones-Hillis trio, and thus the occasion was ripe for Long to recast the program through his first hire as Frank Broyles' successor. These circumstances do not afford Long as much latitude, although in fairness, he does not seem at all inclined to discard the pro-style offense simply due to the innovator's personal gaffes.
Thus explains the players' apparent endorsement of Paul Petrino as either an interim or permanent option, as the younger Petrino, his lack of head coach chops aside, seems to be every bit the thinker that his brother is but with more of a penchant for building relationships. It is yet to be seen whether Long will or will not be comfortable with elevating Bobby's brother to this position, and I could hardly fault him one way or the other. If you believe that coaching acumen courses through the Petrino veins, though, do you summarily assume that lapses in judgment will also be part of the genetic makeup? It hardly seems fair to make that leap, but it is arguably just as illogical to think that Paul can be Bobby's equal as a game manager and playcaller.
The other staffers have their pros and cons as well, as Tim Horton, Paul Haynes or Taver Johnson all have virtues — and nary a minute of head coaching experience to speak of. And therein lies the Gordian knot with which Long has to wrestle. He can hardly justify hiring a middling head coach away from a lesser school if it's going to spoil 2012 without cause, and yet he can scarcely feel comfortable with the stopgap solution for the risk it entails far down the chronological road. It's a position that is somehow even more strenuous than the one he was in a week ago on the platform at Bud Walton Arena.