Just to be clear, it's Bobby Petrino's fault he got fired. His actions are the trigger for each of Jeff Long's football decisions since April 10, when he made the decision to fire Petrino.
In the aftermath of one of the most disastrous games in Razorback history, lots of angry fans are naturally looking back on that choice and questioning whether it was the right call, whether it was necessary, whether it might have been different if Long had taken more time to make his decision.
After Long fired Petrino, he hired John L. Smith as an interim coach to keep the staff in tact instead of hiring a permanent coach that would in all likelihood replace the current staff during the off-season. Until tonight, fans for the most part have been accepting of this decision, but now, after losing to Louisiana-Monroe just two games into the season, that will come into question as well.
It's unfair to give Long a final grade on this whole process until after he hires a permanent coach and we see how that coach performs.
But the argument that it was best to keep the staff together for all the potential this season brought is questionable. Of course the players wanted to keep the staff together. They've developed relationships over the years. It's natural. It would have been a struggle to get to know a new coaching staff and learn a new system. But if the results of the Smith hire are games like this, all the decision did was create cause a different type of pain and frustration.
Tyler Wilson didn't play the entire second half due to an injury, and in his place was redshirt freshman Brandon Allen. With senior running backs Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson in the backfield, especially with a 28-7 lead, it would seem like the reasonable thing to do would be to give them the ball get out of Little Rock as quickly as possible.
In the second half and overtime, Davis and Johnson combined for nine total carries. Allen attempted 20 passes.
That's on Paul Petrino because he was calling the plays, and it's also on Smith for not making the adjustment. Bobby Petrino was sometimes criticized for stubbornly trying to force a running game to work that wasn't there. Paul Petrino might be stubborn for the passing game. Of course the defense wasn't exactly stellar either. Who did Long turn away for this?
Long made it appear, when he made the decision to hire Smith, that multiple attractive candidates were interested in the job, but Long didn't want to break up the coaching staff. We don't know for certain who those candidates were, but knowing what happened tonight, and seeing that this season of promise may turn into a sideshow while the fan base focuses more on a coaching search, you do have to wonder if that was the correct call.
One would think the loss also removes basically all potential of Smith keeping his job beyond this season, so Long's next enormous decision is now on the clock as well.
Who's to say if the Arkansas job will even be as attractive to a coach after the season as it was in April, when the prospect of coaching Wilson, Davis, Hamilton and all the other highly touted seniors were going to give it one more go around. With all of them gone next year, how attractive is an Arkansas job with a team left over that couldn't put away Louisiana-Monroe?
If a highly touted coach is interested in running your program when you happen to have an opening, is it wise to turn him down under the auspice of "wait until after the season"? Or do you jump on him when you get the chance? Or do you leave the program in the hands of a guy known mostly for a few YouTube clips?
As difficult as it is to imagine a Bobby Petrino-coached team losing that game tonight, bringing him back is not the answer. He probably wouldn't have kept Wilson, Mitchell, or Walker from getting hurt. He recruited all those defensive players. He hired every coach on that staff. By getting fired when he did, with the 21-5 mark, he ensured that a segment of Razorback fans will always look back on him as some sort of long lost love. The one that got away. And any time the football program suffers any sort of misfortune in the next few years, Long will get "Bring Bobby Back" tweets on his mentions list. Unfortunately, that's his burden now.
The only way Long can get out of it is to make a slam-dunk hire. Especially if the season continues to go poorly, the public focus on the coaching search only increase. And this choice won't be the type he can change after only giving him a 10-month contract. This coach will be needed to not only win, but raise excitement and money so Arkansas can fill that giant hole in the ground behind the football stadium. You don't think donors are waiting to see who the new coach is before making financial pledges?
The worst part about it for Long is that he has to know the likelihood of hiring another coach as good as Petrino is slim. Simply because there are not very many out there and they all have jobs. And if the next coach isn't as successful as Petrino, many fans will blame Long for firing him. Long was hailed throughout the country and from most of the Arkansas fan base for displaying courage and integrity in firing Petrino despite his on-field success. We're starting to see that it's much easier to display integrity in April than when your team is losing to Louisiana-Monroe in the fall. If Long doesn't hire someone that makes fans forget this memory, it will stain his memory in Arkansas.
What a terrible situation.