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Former Arkansas coaches say players quit on team
Published 1 hour and 30 minutes ago Last updated 17 minutes and 17 seconds ago
Steve Greenberg Sporting News
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Paul Haynes is at Kent State now, a first-time head coach in a triumphant return to his alma mater.
Paul Petrino is at Idaho, likewise a first-time head coach, at the school where he cut his teeth in the profession under John L. Smith from 1992-94, some of the best years for the Vandals as a I-AA program.
Former Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino believes that some Razorbacks seniors "hung it up." (AP Photo)
But both men believe the Arkansas staff led by Smith in 2012 deserved a fairer start to the season. And if they had gotten it, maybe all of them would still be in Fayetteville.
In separate interviews with Sporting News, Haynes, who was the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator last season, and Petrino, who was their offensive coordinator, said Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long made a mistake when he hired Smith to a 10-month contract last April, a couple of weeks after Bobby Petrino was fired amidst a personal scandal.
It was a mistake that bore such awkwardness and dysfunction within the program that both ex-coordinators—and Smith himself—believe some players eventually quit on the team.
Whether or not Smith was the right man for Arkansas at that time, he, Haynes and Paul Petrino say the duration of Smith’s contract had players convinced the entire staff wouldn’t be around in 2013, and that realization led some to tune out their coaches.
“I don’t think an A.D. should ever hire somebody for 10 months,” Paul Petrino said. “Players know what that means; they understand that. It hurts the power of the head coach and the assistants.
“They should’ve hired (Smith) for two years or hired someone else for two years, or just (expletive)-canned all of us.”
All three coaches say they hold no grudges with Long or the Arkansas administration and that they were treated well by the school. (Long declined to comment for this story.) The coaches also say the Razorbacks, even in a state of such flux, should’ve been better than the 4-8 disasters they were.
Still, Haynes—who’d experienced a similar situation at Ohio State under interim coach Luke Fickell after the firing of Jim Tressel—believes Arkansas should’ve known better.
“Even if they had a plan to get rid of us no matter what, which I think they did, you say two years and I think the kids dig in,” Haynes said. “When you give 10 months, everyone is on egg shells.”
Said Smith, now the coach at Division II Fort Lewis College: “You look back and, yeah, a little more time would’ve been nice. Does that give you more teeth? Yes.”
Perhaps not only with players. Both Petrino and Haynes admit to having hoped, at least at some point, to become the next head coach at Arkansas. Fellow assistant Taver Johnson, who was interim coach before Smith was hired, hoped for the same. Along the way in 2012, it certainly dawned on all of them that they’d soon need to find jobs. Petrino isn’t sure anyone gave Smith his very best effort.
“It was also hard for John L. with assistants,” he said, “maybe even with me. And I love John; outside of my brother and my dad, that’s the person in football I love the most. … I don’t necessarily know if he was ever able to be himself all the way.”
Smith was an easy target in the media all season, but the criticism began in earnest following a 52-0 loss at home to Alabama that dropped the Razorbacks—who’d been considered by many, even without Bobby Petrino, an SEC contender—to 1-2.
Immediately after that game—two days prior to Smith’s widely lampooned “Smile!” press conference—the coach admitted to reporters that he had no idea what to tell his team.
Tyler Wilson knew just what to say. Concussion symptoms forced the senior quarterback and team leader to miss the Alabama game (the only game he’d miss during the season), but he sought out reporters afterward and accused his teammates of having quit.
“Do I feel that we, at times, gave up out there? Yeah, absolutely,” Wilson told the media.
It was a foreshadowing of things to come, according to Smith, Haynes and Petrino. All three claim that, by November, several key members of the team were mailing it in—in some cases milking injuries to avoid playing.
“There were some seniors who kind of hung it up, to be honest with you,” Petrino said. “They were going to worry about their futures more than that team. A couple seniors said they were hurt and I don’t know if they really were.”
Smith agrees, although he says he loves every member of the 2012 team.
“If a kid’s hurt, he’s hurt. Could some of the guys that were hurt have played with those injuries and continued on? That’s up to those guys,” Smith said.
“But I think some of the players, some of the older guys, said, ‘Why should I continue on?’ They were looking ahead to the NFL.”
Haynes offers a twist on that theory. It’s his belief that the players loved their coaches back—and, when it became clear most of those coaches would soon be fired, their feelings of loyalty to the school suffered.
“I really don’t fault them, to be honest with you,” Haynes said. “I don’t fault the kids for thinking that way. Again, there was no stability there. Again, it goes back to, ‘Who am I playing for?’ Once they can’t say, ‘We’re trying to save the coaches’ jobs’—if they’re just playing for the university, sometimes kids feel the university let them down.”
None of the coaches named players or implied that any specific ones quit on the team.
As is true with many teams, several upperclassmen who would’ve been counted on missed games down the stretch.
Among them were senior tight end Chris Gragg, who missed seven games on the season, including the last four, with a nagging leg injury and whose availability Smith was unsure of more than once in weekly meetings with the media.
Linebacker Tenarius Wright had season-ending surgery in October to fix what was described at the time as a nagging shoulder injury. Smith said then: “He had to make a decision on what to do, and he’s decided he’s going to get it fixed.”
Also, fourth-year running back Knile Davis missed two games in November with a hamstring injury, including the game at South Carolina despite having practiced full-speed, according to Smith at the time, the week leading in. Davis, who had one year of eligibility remaining, entered the NFL draft despite having had an unproductive junior season.
“This story really has nothing to do with him,” said Davis’ agent, the Fayetteville-based Mike Conley Sr. “It definitely wasn’t Knile.”
Attempts to reach the draft-bound Wilson, always a vocal spokesman for the Razorbacks, through his representatives were unsuccessful.
Arkansas elected not to make any current players available for interviews for this story.
That team was a mess in 2012.