Exactly five years ago, Jeff Long gave Razorback fans a coach to be excited about with the surprise hiring of then Atlanta Falcons coach of Bobby Petrino. Petrino left Atlanta by-way of a four-sentence note in each players locker after coaching the team to a 3-10 record. Some reporters have told me it was the one day Falcons owner Arthur Blank gave free reign to the media to any player, allowing players to express their frustration.
All that aside, Arkansas fans were ecstatic that the Houston Nutt era had come to an end, believing Petrino had learned his lesson and would not leave a team in bad taste again.
To put five years ago into perspective, the Hogs were saying goodbye a duo of running backs you may have heard of, Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, as they left for the NFL. The Razorbacks were on the cusp of signing a nice threesome of receivers (Joe Adams, Greg Childs, and Jarius Wright), who are all currently in the NFL and some quarterback named Tyler Wilson. The Razorbacks just stunned No. 1 LSU in three overtimes at Death Valley, before they would go on to win the BCS National Championship, and "Crank That" by Soldier Boy was steadily rising up the Billboard charts.
Times were good but not great.
We know the rest of the well-documented story which leads us up to today, five years later. Petrino wrecked his motorcycle, unveiling an affair within the athletic department. John L. Smith comes in with a dark horse national championship team and goes 4-8. He is essentially fired, yet Long wins again by hiring former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. Six days later, almost to the day Arkansas welcomed him in, Petrino is hired at Western Kentucky in an attempt to resurrect his coaching career.
All of the aforementioned story and timing begs the question, is Arkansas football in a better place than it was December 11, 2007?
The public's perception has changed because the public is quick to only remember what has happened most recently. That said, the program is better off now than it was. Need further evidence? Remember the Nutt years and just before that, Danny Ford?
Times are better than good, yet still not great.
This was a difficult season to watch and most of us were much more apt to change the channel in the fourth quarter than we had been in the last two seasons.
Arkansas fell further and faster than any other program who sat in its place had before. When that is brought up, fans must remember a BCS bowl berth (Ohio State was later forced to forfeit the win), a dominating win over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, along with back-to-back 10-win seasons. One bad season, under an interim coach no less, should not fog your memory so quickly. They were on their way to great.
There are some parts of the program which have only marginally improved, such as the talent who signs the dotted line on Signing Day each February. It felt as if under Petrino this was much improved. Was this coaching or an actuality? Time will tell, but for now it seems many of the same problems still plague Arkansas in terms of talent.
Five years ago a coach who has won three consecutive conference championships, earned three Rose Bowl berths, and gone 68-24 would not have left that gig for Arkansas. But Bielema did and with some fire, too. From his Twitter account last night:
The success of Arkansas football does coincide with the success of the SEC and its six, maybe seven, straight national championships. That is an easy out for those wanting to criticize the program. Outsiders see Arkansas as riding the coattails of the conference's powers, but this is not the case.
The Razorbacks have had a hand in why the nation views the SEC as so dominant: its high rankings, especially the 2011 season as they were one of three SEC teams in the top three with a legitimate shot at the BCSNCG; its at-large BCS bowl bid, its ability to lure top coaches, a then NFL coach and then three-time Big 10 champion coach; and a 3-3 record against respected SEC power LSU.
Arkansas is not on the same level as an Alabama yet, and, to be honest, I do not know if the infrastructure sets up so that it will ever be. However, I can say the program is better now than it was the day Long stole Petrino away from Atlanta.
Listening today as Petrino made his rounds on a national radio tour and hearing each of them ask what could have been at Arkansas was no fun, as I thought to myself what might have been truly magical and how an elusive champsionship could have changed national perceptions. I wish the best of luck to Petrino and his family on their continued path of recovery. And while it hurts to write this, a thanks for helping Arkansas progress towards that ultimate goal of a national championship.
Bielema, who was hired by-way of this note, undoubtedly inherits a program in need of some work, but he enters into a situation better than it was five years ago.
Here's to hoping he can take this program to great.