Incredibly, it’s already been about five weeks Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle, and the sordid details of his personal life began to get revealed. It’s been almost four weeks since Petrino was fired as Arkansas’ football coach, and it’s been three weeks since John L. Smith was named his short-term replacement.
And if you’re wondering how the transition is going, well, it’s been all smiles and spring roses for Arkansas football players. On Monday the Associated Press reported from Fayetteville, and it’s safe to say the mood is downright giddy, almost like two teenagers yapping on the phone to friends after a good first date.
Here’s what Knile Davis told the AP about his (old) new coach:
”John, he has a serious side,” Davis said. ”You can’t be in this game playing around. He can be serious. He knows how to get what he needs out of you, but he also has a playful side, and that’s cool.”
He later added:
‘’Yeah, the environment is a lot different, but it’s cool that it’s different,’’ Davis said. ‘’It’s not bad that it’s different.’’
So it’s safe to say that things are different in Fayetteville, but I’ve got to ask: Is it for the best?
Honestly, I’m not so sure.
Look, with some time to remove ourselves from the initial shock of the firing and hiring of Smith, we can at the very least say that Arkansas AD Jeff Long handled the situation about as well as he could’ve. Obviously Long couldn’t keep Petrino once details emerged about his motorcycle companion Jessica Dorrell, and once he was gone, Long acted swiftly and decisively to go grab Smith, a former assistant with previous head coaching experience. It’s safe to say that Long made the best of a less than ideal situation.
At the same time, whenever a situation like this comes up, and quotes like Davis’ come out, I always get a tiny bit concerned. In the sport of college football (let alone in a league as cutthroat as the SEC), there is such a thin line between victory and defeat, between “BCS Title contender” and “eight win ball club.” A club needs every, tiny advantage they can get
And well, it’s safe to say that playing for Petrino was definitely Arkansas’ edge. Petrino may not have been a nice guy or a nice person, but his players feared him and the guy got them to play to the absolute peak of their abilities. Simply put, you didn’t have to like Bobby Petrino. But the results spoke for themselves.
Will Smith’s gentler approach be able to yield the same results? It’s tough to say, but I have my doubts.
If anything, this reminds me a lot of a situation which came up a few years back at West Virginia. At the time the Mountaineers were coming of an 11-2 season and a Fiesta Bowl beat down of Oklahoma, and headed into the 2008 season ranked in the Top 10 nationally by most outlets. They also had a new head coach named Bill Stewart, who had been tabbed as Rich Rodriguez’s replacement after leading the Mountaineers to the Fiesta Bowl victory as an interim head coach. At the time, it was hard to blame West Virginia for simply promoting the next guy to the top spot.
But as the season got closer, and camp opened up, I noticed the same kind of vibe around West Virginia that I read in that AP report on Arkansas. If you listened closely to interviews, guys would say stuff like “We like it better now, we don’t get yelled at as much” and “Practice is still tough, but not like it used to be.” Well guess what? The Mountaineers went from preseason Top 10 team to 9-4 and easily could’ve lost another game or two. Things just weren’t the same with the newer, nicer guy in charge.
So what’s the point in all that? Just that while players always say the right things, if you go easy on them, they’ll go easy on themselves. And really, that’s why head coaches like Petrino are so rare. There are a lot of guys who can be head football coaches. There aren’t nearly as many who have the mindset, attitude and (at times) cruelty to be a “great” one. Petrino had it, and I’m not sure if Smith ever will.
If anything, I thought there was one last thing Davis said that I thought summed everything up. As you may have noticed, in that opening quote, Davis was quick to refer to Smith as “John.” When asked by the reporter if he’d have ever referred to Petrino by his first name, Davis answered with a quick, ”Uh, no, probably not.”
I’m not saying that one quote says it all, but if I were an Arkansas fan I’d be very nervous.
There’s definitely a new sheriff in town. The problem is I’m just not sure that he’s packing the heat necessary to keep order.
For all his opinion, insight and articles on college football, follow Aaron Torres on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.