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McCollum's Column: Razorbacks' muddled, dysfunctional situation becoming clearer

Posted: January 31, 2013 - 9:03pm

It’s interesting and cruelly ironic that some former University of Arkansas football coaches, while preaching and publicly proclaiming to their players throughout a dreadful season to not point fingers, are now pointing fingers.

Now that they are out of the line of fire and well away from the stench, they are showing glimpses of what a dysfunctional family the Razorbacks were during a 4-8 season in which they went from a possible national title contender to the dumps, from BCS Bowl to no bowl.

While not naming specific names, Paul Petrino, the Hogs’ offensive coordinator last season; Paul Haynes, the defensive coordinator; and John L. Smith, the interim head coach, all told The Sporting News that they thought some Razorback players quit on them when the going got tough with a lame duck staff.

Petrino is now the head football coach at Idaho, Haynes the head football coach at Kent State and Smith at Fort Lewis College in Colorado. They landed on their feet. They, understandably, now can take a deeo breath and release some steam.

We know now that when former head coach Bobby Petrino rode is motorcycle into a ditch along with his new staff hire and lover that he ran the program into deep muck.

It’s debatable how different the UA record would have been if Petrino hadn’t turned April Fools Day and beyond into a larger-than-life soap opera. The team had some major deficiencies, particularly on defense, that were masked by offensive firepower. The relationship between Petrino and more than a few high school coaches in the state was cold. There was significant attrition, for various reasons, on some key recruits. It has been revealed that many players were playing out of fear of, and not like, for Petrino. They were fragile.

Bottom line and it later showed on the field: The foundation was not solid and possibly unraveling in spots.

Bottom line. When Petrino was fired, things became a big, yucky mess.

The timing, well after signing day and spring practices, weas awful, making damage control almost impossible.

As a result, no one in charge acted perfectly. Everyone made mistakes.

Coaches told The Sporting News that Jeff Long, the athletic director, made a huge mistake in hiring John L. Smith as interim coach with a 10-month contract.

They are probably correct in the assessment that it was a slap in the face to the current staff. The message it sent was none of them could handle a head coaching position, even short term, in the Southeastern Conference. Most interims, particularly in such awful timing, are done internally. What the staff naturally read into that was they pretty much all had 10-month contracts. Moreover, as a lame duck staff, they had limited clout or credibility at least with some players.

The coaches were put in a position to not give their ultimate. So were the players. They were not put in the best position to win at a high level.

“It was also hard for John L. with assistants,” Paul Petrino told The Sporting News, “Maybe even with me. And I love John; outside of my brother and my dad, that’s the person in football I love the most. ... I don’t necessarily know if he was ever able to be himself all the way.”

This was not Long’s shining moment but let’s look at it from another perspective.

The Hogs were returning some very good upperclassmen players — including two, quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis, who were considered Heisman Trophy candidates. There was reason to believe the season could be salvaged — and Arkansas could be a highly successful team — if stability could quickly be established and the coaching staff kept completely intact, all retaining important one-on-one roles as position coaches. Keep things as much as possible on an even keel, the prevailing wisdom at the time for most of us.

It was too late to name a fulltime head coach a from the type of high-level pool fans and supporters envisioned. Smith, who had coached many of the players as an assistant and had worked with almost every member of the staff, was available and seemed at the time to be a workable solution, given what was available and the team the Hogs had coming back (the areas of concern camouflaged by hype and expectations). Smith effectiveness was limited by the 10-month contract but it was something, after deciding not to go internally for a solution, Long probably had to do to gain maximum flexibility for the home run long-term solution fans in which fans were clamoring.

Then, the Hogs were defeated by Louisiana-Monroe (in perspective, not a terrible as it seemed at the time), clobbered by Alabama and defeated by Rutgers.

It became evident something was very wrong — a lot of things in fact.

Smith, although steadfast on his commitments, quickly gained a public persona, fairly or unfairly, of being a goof ball coach.

The leadership for this team didn’t flow from the top. It’s disturbing that now and throughout the season, several coaches at the top dodged responsibility.

It’s natural that a few players may not have been giving maximum effort and were entirely bought in (that happens for various reasons to a lot of teams every season). But the Hogs played with a decent amount of intensity and were competitive in most games to the end. There were enough players play hard to hold a tenuous and frustrating situation together. It may be unfair to imply serious quit. But it’s human nature to deduce they were wondering about the future when it became increasingly clear almost all of the assistants would not be back.

And it’s understandable that when things started heading south, the assistants, faced with an interim coach with a short-term contract and no realistic prospect of any of them becoming the next head coach, would also begin thinking as much about the future as the present. Were they entirely bought in and gave their best effort every day? They are human and all had families to think about. It understandable that the P’s and Q’s on a resume might sometimes trump the X’s and O’s on a field.

In short, everything was one muddled quandary in which there was no effective short-term fix.

The wheels were coming off with no spare and miles from a full-repair shop.

No one acted perfectly. No one was perfectly to blame. Everyone was floating in a black hole.

That’s the nightmarish past. For the Razorbacks, new coach Bret Bielema and his new, highly respected staff, have already applied soothing salves to a lot of wounds. That staff of last year, including Bobby Petrino, have the chance to start anew with lessons learned and an opportunity for redemption. Players usually show amazing resiliency.

With signing day Wednesday, a new cycle begins.

The forecast for now for most everybody is now sunny instead of mostly cloudy.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net)

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