Football preview! (The over/under is five games…)

August 30, 2019

By A. Paul Bowen blood,dirt &angels Sports Editor Emeritus

As I type this, college football will begin in earnest tonight with three or four games on the tube. You can actually say it began last Saturday with Miami and Florida.  And boy aren’t they glad that they got that one in with Florida and much of the Gulf Coast currently in the Dorian mode? 

The Arkansas Razorbacks bravely take on the Vikings of Portland State up in Fayetteville Saturday.  The Vikings, who play in the Big Sky Conference, are a DI Championship Subdivision team.  They are offering themselves up as a living sacrifice to the win hungry Hogs and their long-suffering fans in exchange for a lot of dough and I suppose the opportunity to get walloped in a picturesque setting.  

Not that the Razorbacks can really afford to take anybody for granted.  At least not just yet.  The football program has been a psychodrama for years.  Let us count the ways.  I consider the trouble to have started with the buyout of Houston Nutt’s contract in 2007 only to have him resurface down the road the road at Ole Miss barely 10 minutes after blowing the Ozarks.

This led to the hiring of Bobby Petrino, who left the Atlanta Falcons in the first year of his contract to take the Arkansas job.  He famously informed his players that he was quitting by leaving a laminated note in the locker of each of them.  Perhaps in retrospect, this should have been a sign about Petrino’s essentially transactional approach to some human relationships.  

After a mediocre start, Petrino had good success at Arkansas.  With Ryan Mallett, who possessed a cannon for a right arm, the Hogs went to their first BCS Bowl game against Ohio State in 2011 and beat Kansas State in the 2012 Sugar Bowl.  Which ushered in an era of stability and prosperity for Razorback football.

I jest.  

In April 2012, Petrino was involved in a motorcycle wreck out in rural Washington County.  His passenger was an attractive blonde former volleyball player who was conspicuously not his wife and whom Petrino had hired to work in the athletic department.  He stupidly said to the press that he was the only person on the motorcycle.  I guess he thought the police report of the incident would fail to mention the presence of the co-worker on his bike.  Anyway, Athletic Director Jeff Long suspended Bobby, while this whole mess was being investigated.  

It is a persistent myth that Long fired Petrino for having an affair with a fellow employee.  This is not exactly true.  Long fired Petrino when he found out that Bobby had given her 20k as a Christmas present thereby exposing his employer to liability on a sexual harassment theory.  That’s why he was fired.

Fortunately, or so Long probably thought at the time, former Petrino assistant coach John L. Smith was available.  Well sorta.  He had to leave spring drills at Weber State where he had recently taken over to take the job of Head Coach at Arkansas, albeit one with only a 10-month contract.  On paper this didn’t look bad at the time.  Although he struggled at Michigan State, Smith had won big at Louisville and had DI experience at numerous other colleges.  He was a beloved presence in Louisville where he had hosted a popular radio show before quitting to come to join Petrino at Arkansas.  

To say that the tenure of John L. Smith was a disaster is to libel disasters.  He took a team that was ranked in the top 10 preseason and deftly guided them to a 4-8 record.  For which he was justifiably fired.  Of course, perhaps Arkansas could have been spared this indignity had Jeff Long asked Smith to produce a Dunn and Bradstreet before offering him the job.  If he had done so, he would have learned that Smith had taken a bath in the real estate game back in Kentucky and was basically a turnip who was being sought after by many of the creditors he had stiffed back home.  Indeed, Smith got served by a process server in the Broyles Complex (!) and was forced to file a bankruptcy during his tenure as Head Coach.  You can bet ADs across this great land took a new-found interest in the FICO scores of prospective employees after the fiasco at Arkansas.

Which brings us to Bret Bielema.  Bielema’s nose was out of joint despite having won big at Wisconsin.  He felt that his assistants were not getting paid enough there so he leapt at the chance to come with his staff to Arkansas after Jeff Long cleaned house after the Bobby Petrino/John L. Smith era drew to its conclusion.  

Bielema also brought his road grater offensive philosophy with him.  His teams featured huge, big for NFL teams even, offensive linemen and punishing backs behind them.  The problem was, while you can be slow on offense, you better be quick on defense.  And Bielema’s defenses tended to be on the slow side.  Which occasionally got them killed in SEC play where even Vanderbilt has decent team speed.  

Bielema’s teams were up and down during his five year tenure.  When they were good they were very good.  But they had an absolute genius for blowing leads which eventually got him, and Jeff Long, canned.  Bielema also made the strategic error of pissing off the Texas High School Football Coaches in a speech before them in which he promised to kick the butt of any team that dared to try to run a Spread Offense against him.  Oddly enough, recruiting in Texas dried up quicker than you could say “Art Briles.”

Which is why new Razorback coach Chad Morris makes much of the fact that he considers himself to be a high school coach first and foremost.  He has said he has washed uniforms, lined fields and done lunch room duty.  This resonates with the coaches of the players he recruits as well as with their parents.  In only his third year he also coaxed a winning record out of the formerly execrable SMU Mustangs.  That resonated with new Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek.   

The Razorbacks were a hide-your-eyes awful 2 and 10 last year.  But a lot of the bad heads from last year aren’t there anymore.  And the Razorbacks have the most talented class of recruits in years up there.  They are going to be awfully young.  And some of those young guys are going to get to play.  But as Darryl Royal once said, “If a dog’s gonna bite it will do it as a pup.”

These may be famous last words but so far I like what I see out of Morris.    For a head coach at the DI level he seems to be remarkably free of guile.  His players seem to like him and want to play for him.  He carries an aura of a guy who knows what he is doing as he builds a foundation for a long-term plan.

They may not win more than five games this year.  After all, they are in the murderous SEC West.  But I predict they will be better despite a mediocre record.

I predict these pups are going to bite.  

And they better enjoy Saturday.  Because next up is Ole Miss.  The Rebels may be down.  But they ain’t Portland State. 

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