For decades, it was hard to imagine there would ever be a more celebrated joyride in this state than when the Bandit avoided Smokey through South Arkansas 35 years ago, but Bobby Petrino changed all that.
It’s been exactly one year since Petrino and Jessica Dorrell forever changed the meaning of April Fool’s Day for Razorback fans and completely altered the course of Razorback history. And not just altered the course like taking a strange exit off the interstate, but more like taking your compact car off the paved street and onto a rocky stretch of dirt, not knowing what awaits at the end but not sure your little car can even make it down the road anyway.
There aren’t many Razorback events other than games for which I’ll always remember where I was when I first saw it. For the motorcycle saga, I remember everything clearly. I was sitting at my desk when I got the ArkansasSports360.com email alert that an accident happened, and thinking it was actually the first time in several years, possibly ever, that I actually saw breaking news in an email and not from twitter, the Internet, TV, or word of mouth.
I started getting texts from friends. Some wondered if he was drunk and I assured them it was just an innocent accident. I remember the group of Arkansas beat writers who drove out to take pictures of the patch of dirt where the accident happened, and all the BMFP posts when Petrino conned us all into thinking he was just a really tough guy by appearing at that press conference. Then a couple of days later, at the same desk, getting another ArkansasSports360.com email alert (Clearly, I was not on my game that week) reporting that Petrino had a passenger on the motorcycle with him. It was impossible to focus on anything else the rest of the afternoon at that point – and it stayed that way until Petrino was fired a few days later.
After watching schools like Auburn, Ohio State, USC, Miami, and (on a much different scale) Penn State going through scandals in years prior, I was always thankful that Arkansas wasn’t subject of national scandal that way. If there’s anything to be learned from this, it’s that the fate of any successful program can change in the blink of an eye. Nobody’s immune to it, regardless of how successful they may be at the time. This gives me solace when I think of how indefinitely powerful a program like Alabama is right now. History says it won’t last forever, whether it be due to scandal, retirement, or whatever else.
And when a program falls, boy can it fall.
We only got through last season because the laws of time required us to. It only took one loss of historic proportions for the “Bring Bobby Back” crowd to get moving. Indeed, the coaching search was so long, and with seemingly no public progress, it was difficult for fans to truly look forward. Every coach, literally, who could possibly be connected to the search was mentioned, and then dissected to the point that every coach was too flawed.
I wouldn’t wish an 8-month coaching search on my worst enemy. Except Texas. That would be fun.
As bad as the 2012 season was, with fans critical of Jeff Long for hiring John L. Smith, if not also for firing Petrino, I always believed it wasn’t fair to fully judge Long on the situation until the process was complete with the hiring of the new coach.
Fortunately, after Long drove us down that dirt road, flattened a couple of tires, and poked a hole in the gas tank, Bret Bielema was the destination. Bielema has excited everyone to the point of forgetting last season even existed.
Bielema appears to be the exact opposite of Petrino in almost every way. He comes off as personable, relaxed, honest, and fun. Nothing you’d associate with Petrino. Further, Petrino didn’t seem to care at all that people thought he was a jerk. He’d do things like curse at Les Miles on national television, admonish a reporter in the middle of a press conference for wearing another team’s hat, or ditch the Falcons with nothing but a note in the lockers without worry of consequence. Bielema, however, isn’t shy about taking on his critics on Twitter, regardless of the pettiness and insignificance of the offending attack from critical fans.
But one thing Razorback fans hope they do have in common is winning percentage.
Which leads to the obvious question: is Arkansas better off with Bielema going forward than if the Petrino fiasco had never happened?
It’s an impossible question to answer fully since we don’t know where Petrino would’ve taken the program in the future. About the only thing we can safely say is that 2012 would’ve been more fun. But beyond? It’s certainly debatable, particularly if Bielema has the type of success fans hope he has.
I’d venture to say that while Petrino’s 2008 and 2009 classes were very good and were the cornerstone of the highly successful Sugar Bowl and Cotton Bowl teams, the 2010, 2011, and 2012 classes were not at the same level, and hiring Dorrell for the on-campus recruiting position is evidence Petrino wasn’t putting forth the effort in recruiting to keep the program at the elite level he brought it to. It’s the kind of thing someone would do if they had a contract that made them nearly unfireable.
Meanwhile, Bielema appears to feel like he has something to prove to doubters who question his ability to win in the SEC. He often repeats the refrain of “I didn’t come here to play in the SEC, I came here to win the SEC.”
When asked how he plans on managing the daunting SEC schedule: “They have to play us too”. He’s even lately gone so far as to compare his Big 10 record to Nick Saban’s mediocre tenure at Michigan State. While Bielema is rightfully very proud of his successes at Wisconsin, the hunger to prove himself on a bigger stage in the SEC is something that should serve Arkansas well in the coming years.
Ultimately, Bielema’s level of success will determine how fans view the motorcycle accident. If the Razorbacks bounce back and compete for SEC championships in the next few years, the incident will just be a wacky event that led the Hogs to get the coach the program needed, but if Bielema fails, it will be a tragic what-if. Similar to what the basketball program has been dealing with for the last 10 years.
Certainly, Bielema’s first four months on the job have hit all the right notes. He’s restored a stability, optimism and even a bit of bravado to a fan base that lost it a year ago. A lot of that has to do with the late recruiting battles Bielema and his staff won since that serves as tangible proof Bielema can recruit to Arkansas and build the program. And the players he landed are what Bielema likes to call “big uglies,” guys that can win in the trenches and make life easier for the skill players, whom Bielema jokes were too much of an emphasis for the previous staff.
But Bielema’s personality has had just as much to do with it. He’s someone the fans can relate to and believe in, and after the year this fan base has had, that’s exactly what they need.