Arkansas Razorbacks Football: Head Problems

Screen grab,

If there’s one phrase that I’m already tired of hearing in regards to the 2012 Arkansas Razorbacks football season, it’s “injury above the shoulders.” I’m quite certain that the coaching staff at Arkansas is sick of hearing it, too. After last night’s embarrassing 34-31 loss to Louisiana-Monroe, there’s another phrase that’s quickly climbing the charts of things I’d rather not hear our head coach say, “they outcoached us.”

For several seasons now, fans have been questioning the recruiting methods of the Arkansas coaching staff. Former head coach Bobby Petrino was the king of taking 3-star recruits and turning them into a team that was on the verge of challenging for an SEC Championship. Yet, with that roster nearly full of 3-star kids, under Petrino’s guidance, Arkansas was still unable to get over the Alabama and LSU hump.

As long as Arkansas was turning out 10- and 11-win seasons, coupled with high-placing bowl games and even bowl wins, no one was ready to throw in the towel. Keep winning and the kids will come.

That kind of talk didn’t surface when Petrino ran his bike off the road and his butt out of the head coaching job back in April. That kind of talk didn’t remotely come to the forefront when Athletic Director Jeff Long hired former Special Teams Coordinator John L. Smith to coach the Razorbacks with the hopes of salvaging the season.

After last night’s loss where both coaches were outcoached and players were outplayed, you might start to hear the rumblings again.

But here’s where the problem really lies — this team made a dramatic shift in character the second Petrino was out and Smith was in.

As much as the media said quarterback Tyler Wilson had control of the locker room and the players were focused on winning a national championship, the drive and preparation isn’t there. As much as the media said that the defense was much improved over last year, the improvement and better scheming isn’t there. And as much as Coach Smith went into preseason interview after preseason interview, joking around, providing an air of cool and calm, that’s not what this team needed, or needs now.

Gone are the days of a mad, rabid Petrino barking out orders during practice, telling the kids to be perfect. And so, too, are the chances of the Razorbacks winning a national title this year. Or Wilson and Knile Davis making a run at the Heisman. Or the notion that our defense was finally turning a corner.

Yes, we should be aware that Louisiana-Monroe was playing their first game of the season last night and had five weeks to prepare for Arkansas — hence the outcoaching comment. But this is a ULM team that should never walk into an Arkansas stadium and beat the Hogs. Twenty years ago, former Arkansas head coach Jack Crowe was fired after his team lost 10-3 against The Citidel. The argument can be made that if Crowe was fired then (by former Athletic Director Frank Broyles), why wouldn’t Long fire Smith now?

Here’s a few reasons why not:

1. Smith’s contract is only for 10-months. When Smith signed the 10-month deal, it was clear that Long was anticipating, or even already conducting, a head coach search for next year.

2. If you fire Smith now, who do you elevate to head coach? We played that game back in April and there was no clear cut answer. Sure, Long COULD name a new head coach from the current staff, but there’s hardly anything positive over the past two weeks that warrants that shot. Besides, Smith is more of a figure head coach anyway, the product Arkansas has on the field is a direct result of the staff in place.

3. By firing Smith, you’ve admitted failure and given up on the season. Late last night, there were already some bitter tweets going back and forth between fans and players. If you think there’s division now, if Smith were let go, the collective wheels would come off (not that several of them are flat currently).

4. The less additional turmoil that Long can bring upon this program, the better. Jeff Long has had a rough, ROUGH, six months. This loss is bad. Actually, it’s bad enough to be ESPN’s highlight game of the night. With the Petrino firing, the plethora of arrests, suspensions and dismissals, and now this — the last thing this team needs is more upheaval.

Some might say firing Smith is the thing to do. Some feel the team and staff needs to stay together. And a very few say that we need to tuck our tail and hire Petrino back (not gonna happen).

As fans of the team, we have to keep cheering for those kids. We have to help them pick each other up off of the ground and stand behind them. This team still has the talent to make a run. They may not be able to beat Alabama next weekend, but we’ve all seen teams start the season slowly and finish strong. Perhaps this (horrible) loss is the thing to bring them all together and realize that no team can be overlooked. We have a few weeks before that’s sorted out.

I don’t think Smith should be, or will be, fired. But I do know this — the paradigm has completely shifted for Arkansas football. It’s true the roster isn’t filled with 4- and 5-star athletes like Alabama or LSU, but when Petrino was running the program, Arkansas showed that they could hang and were capable of having great seasons. Smith has introduced a less intense brand of ball. Even though the remainder of the coaching staff remained, with the un-fulfilling win over Jacksonville State and the loss to ULM, the entire program, players and coaches alike, have sustained an “injury above the shoulders.”

And it’s an injury that could be extremely hard to recover from.