Wally Hall is the managing sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock after an honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force, he is a member and past president of the Football Writers Association of America, member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, past president and current executive committee and board member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year 10 times and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
Like It Is:
Petrino visit stirs memories of winning days
Former Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino speaks to the Little Rock Touchdown Club on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Little Rock.
Monday was the first time this reporter ever saw Bobby Petrino step out of his safety zone and show a soft side.
Not saying he hasn’t always had one, but even he joked about being a player’s coach … “Whatever that is.”
Not saying he wasn’t cordial, he was.
Not saying he wasn’t respectful, he was.
But showing a kinder, gentler side, not really. Not until Monday.
Sure, there are skeptics. They remember Petrino’s emotions usually were accompanied by some salty blue language.
More than anything, Monday brought back memories of when the University of Arkansas was feared in the land of football.
By everyone, including Alabama because no one schemed for the Crimson Tide better than Petrino. He never beat them, but he brought out the very best in Nick Saban.
To fully explain how Arkansas went from the penthouse to the outhouse, we have to go back to when the UA board of trustees, through proper channels, ordered Jeff Long to hire Petrino.
Long had been sniffing around the ACC, mostly getting used by coaches who got raises to stay put — much like Les Miles a few years later.
Petrino caused a stir by leaving the Atlanta Falcons before the season was over, but he needed to get to Arkansas and start recruiting immediately.
On Monday, he admitted Tim Horton had done a great job of holding the recruiting class together.
Petrino went 5-7, followed by 8-5, 10-3 and 11-2.
Then he made a personal mistake and was fired. The reason cited was for lying to his boss. If Long had fired everyone who lied to him, he wouldn’t have had any employees left.
The firing was in April, and Long didn’t have a clue what to do, so he named John L. Smith as the interim.
That was the first major mistake.
Months later without due diligence, he hired Bret Bielema, who on paper looked like a great hire.
Long did not talk to Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez. Instead, he lurked in the shadows and made his grab.
Not once did he ask why Bielema would leave Wisconsin. Bielema offered the excuse that Alvarez wouldn’t pay assistants enough to stay.
Now, it seems more likely Bielema wanted to run his own program and to do that he had to get away from Alvarez, who told the Little Rock Touchdown Club a few years ago that he and Bielema met two or three times a week during football season.
Bielema finished last in the SEC West his first two seasons, swelled to third, then dropped to fifth and back to last.
Somewhere in that mediocrity, Long gave Bielema a new contract and a huge buyout. The AD might as well have written the check that day.
It was like Bielema thought to himself, “I can kill myself and try to finish third or fourth and go to a mediocre bowl, or I can get myself fired and walk away with millions.”
Before Bielema’s last season, Long was warned a change was needed. Long bristled and resisted, and he was fired days before Bielema was fired.
Chancellor Joe Steinmetz appointed Julie Cromer Peoples as interim AD and told her to find a football coach. She spent a week trying to get Gus Malzahn, who was never coming but got the big raise he wanted.
With Arkansas looking for its fourth coach in 11 years, some established coaches were not interested, but Chad Morris at SMU was.
He looked like the second coming of Art Briles without the problems.
And he might be with his connections in Texas, but he took over a Razorback program that was very short on discipline and talent.
Morris has taken on the challenge head first. He just needs a lot of time to prove he’s the right coach.
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