By Evin Demirel
With 2:50 left in the first quarter, Arkansas trailed Alabama 7-0 on Saturday. On third down, freshman quarterback Brandon Allen threw a pass to Brandon Mitchell near mid field, but the ball bounced off Mitchell’s hands and appeared to be picked off by Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, who ran it back to the Arkansas three yard line.
It wasn’t clear if Milliner had actually intercepted the pass. CBS replays showed the deflected ball wobbling and falling down, down close to the turf, before going up again, scooped up into Milliner’s arms.
The question: Did it hit ground first? At any point, did it bounce back?
Yes, it turned out.
The Razorbacks, though, could be falling for a while.
There were too many loose ends in Arkansas’ 52-0 loss in Fayetteville. Not even a healthy quarterback, cornerback and fullbacks would have tied them.
The game still had not slipped out of grasp in the early second quarter when, down 10-0, from Alabama 42 yard line Allen misread the Alabama defense and forced a deep pass over the middle to tight end Chris Gragg. Safety Vinnie Sunseri – with such a name, I’d expect him to play for Rutgers, the New Jersey school Arkansas plays next – intercepted the ball and returned it 13 yards. Allen, making his first start, could have made the far more simple throw to an open Knile Davis, who would have run it to near the first down marker.
It’s likely Tyler Wilson, Arkansas’ injured star quarterback, would have made the safe throw.
On a pass attempt on the next Arkansas drive, Allen stayed in the pocket a couple beats longer than he should have. He was sacked for an eight-yard loss, pushing the Hogs back to their own 20-yard line and killing the drive.
It’s likely Wilson would have gotten rid of the ball quicker.
This isn’t a jeremiad on Arkansas’ unseasoned quarterbacks, who have done about as well as can be expected, all things considered. They had nothing to do with the spotty special teams play. They weren’t going to stop a 6-4, 320-pound Australian defensive lineman named Jesse Williams from putting the entire Hogs’ offensive line on the barbie. They weren’t the ones unable to get around the three preseason All-Americans on Alabama’s offensive line, or wrap up bruising tailback Eddie Lacy behind the lines.
Wilson would not have helped in these departments.
If Arkansas’ entire roster is healthy, it’s good enough to beat the Rutgers, Ole Misses and Auburns of the world – even if the coaching is much worse than it was last season, before Bobby Petrino’s attempted career immolation. Even with Petrino as coach, though, the gap between Arkansas and national front-runners Alabama and LSU was obvious.
What makes those programs consistently superb are 1) big, fast, strong four and five star recruits and 2) a winning system most of them buy into.
Petrino certainly had a system in place, which was good enough for frequent upper-tier bowl appearances, but he couldn’t sign the nation’s best recruits like more established programs. To win, he had to coach his players up, and try to use a high powered offensive system as an equalizer against more talented teams. It worked, except against the teams who always end up where he wants to be – in the national title game.
Petrino didn’t put much stock in building relationships with his players off the field. He tended to motivate them through fear, not outward signs of love. In order to attract the very best recruits, a coach must be able to do both. It helps if he genuinely enjoys young people, which is especially important since many top-notch modern players chafe at the gruff, tough-love coaching style of past generations.
Even if the Hogs had kept winning 10 to 12 games a season, Petrino’s attitude would have kept Arkansas from recruiting at the same level of more established elite programs. That, in turn, would have kept them from ever entering the ranks of Nick Saban’s Alabama or Les Miles’ LSU.
The best players in the most talent-rich football areas of the country (especially California, the deep South and Florida) typically grow up as fans of the programs in their area. If that program is winning and has a great coach, it’s near impossible to convince them to come to a remote place like Arkansas. But if mama hears good things about how the coach has nurtured a family atmosphere, she is more willing to consider letting her son live so far away and not being able to see him as much.
If there is any silver lining in this unraveling mess of a season, it’s that athletic director Jeff Long has a unique opportunity to use all the financial support Petrino’s success inspired in the program as a base from which he can hire a coach who’s a better fit than Petrino in terms of getting Arkansas close to the level of Alabama and LSU.
Long has already invested in building one of the nation’s topathleticcomplexes. He’s also willing to pay college football’s highest salary, according to a source of Otis Kirk of Hawgs247 [pay wall warning]. Yes, Long hired interim dud John L. Smith. But he’s also laid the table for a far more powerful program than Smith’s predecessor left behind.
Arkansas could win three, five, even seven more games. It won’t matter in the long run if Long doesn’t make what turns out to be a home run hire.“Arkansas fans, you should simply hope that in 2.5 months or so, Jeff Long hires a big-time coach. That, not this wrecked season, matters now,” wrote MattZemek of CollegeFootballNews.com.
Who should it be? Who should Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long decide is the best match for downcast but still fiercely loyal Arkansas fans, for the world-class facilities they have funded and the enduring expectations of a greatness which keeps slipping away?
Arkansas hasn’t won a national title since 1964, and the previous head coach put a mistress before the goal of leading the program to another. There are plentycandidates, some of whom could find potential openings at Tennessee and Auburn more attractive. Let’s get this out of the way: the next coach shouldn’t be Bobby Petrino again. It should be someone who brings these attributes to the table:
1) Genuinely inspires players – Before the Alabama game, I asked Knile Davis and Cobi Hamilton if they planned to step up in Wilson’ absence. Both said they would – “I have to will this team to victory,” Davis said. “Of course,” Hamilton said. Not just with “playmaking ability but also just being a leader, vocally. Because Tyler was really the guy as far as vocally rallying the troops together and taking charge in the huddle.”
Wilson, of course, called his teammates out after the Alabama game for not playing as hard in the second half. But it’s not the job of Arkansas’ best players to also be its best leaders. The next coach should realize this, and embrace it. Naturally, someone who really cares about his players will also most inspire them. As much as some people are clamoring for a hire of West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen, his reputation fordrunkencavorting should remove him from Long’s final list.
2) Has developed an extensive recruiting network in the South, especially Texas. The north and east parts of Texas have long been a source of future Hogs. This extremely talent-rich area becomes even more critical because, quite frankly, most all the best young players in other close recruiting hotspots – Louisiana, southern Mississippi and Alabama – grow up as LSU, Alabama or Auburn fans.
To many north Texans, Arkansas is attractive because it’s a closer SEC school. Granted, Texas A&M is now in the mix, but with the right hire Arkansas should still have a better program than the Aggies in the short term. A five-star Texan is much more likely to eschew a good Texas A&M team and join Arkansas than a five-star player from the Deep South would snub an elite Alabama or LSU program.
3) Has substantial experience as a head coach in a major conference. Some Hog fans are enticed by the head coaching potential of Alabama’s defensive coordinator Kirby Smart or Garrick McGee, Arkansas’ former offensive coordinator, now head coach at UAB, Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn. But the Razorbacks can’t afford to roll the dice on such unproven candidates, especially someone like Malzahn who – for all his ties to the state – is already one of its most polarizing sports figures.
The following are my top two choices for the Hogs’ next head coach. I’m assuming big names such as Jon Gruden, Pete Carroll and Gary Patterson won’t seriously consider any offers:
1) Art Briles
Amazingly, he’s spent his entire 33-year coaching career in Texas, working from the high school ranks up. Arkansas has never had a head coach with anything near this level of Texas recruiting connections. His Baylor program has shown steady improvement the last four years, notching a 6-3 Big 12 record last season under Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Griffin’s star continues to rise at the NFL, which will help Briles lock up future elite recruits from around the nation.
2) Charlie Strong
At this point, Strong looks to be the most likely and logical candidate. A Batesville native and UCA alumnus, he knows Arkansas. He’s not as plugged into Texas circles, but his impressive bona fides as a defensive line coach at Notre Dame and defensive coordinator for two Florida national championship teams will impress the elite defensive recruits Arkansas has sorely lacked. Strong also appears to have Louisville, at 3-0, improving at a rapid pace.
Some wonder whether his race (African-American) will be a problem as he would be the first black head football coach in Razorback history. It’s possible that this matters to someboosters, but consider Fayetteville, Ark. has one of the lowest populations of African-Americans among all SEC school towns, which matters to some young African-American recruits considering different colleges. If their potential head coach firsthand understands the challenges of a young black male in a majority white culture, that matters.
An edited version of this article originally published in SYNC, which is affiliated with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.