By KOLBY PAXTON
A few years ago I wrote an article for my blog titled, “It’s the Shoes.” The piece was inspired by a trip to Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium for a late season matchup between Arkansas and Troy, in what was Bobby Petrino’s second season as head hog.
At the time, Petrino was only 11-11 in his first 22 games with the Razorbacks, but I was struck by the general disposition of the cardinal-clad faithful. This was the same state, town, and program that was leveled by the controversies surrounding Houston Nutt. Nutt vs. Malzahn. Nutt vs. Springdale. “Nutthuggers” vs. “Darksiders.” Emailers attacking freshman quarterbacks. A head coach that seemed more concerned with recruiting a local news reporter than he was with recruiting football players. Parade All-Americans transferring. Planes flying banners in protest — and they weren’t even from Texas. Total chaos. Resentful divide.
Suddenly, though, I was sitting amidst a euphoric, hog-calling crowd, watching a talented, exciting young team, and the light at the end of the tunnel was blinding. I called sophomore wide receivers Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright “big time college talents,” and they were. I referred to the backfield as “Southern Cal loaded,” and it was. Here is an exerpt of what I said next:
Petrino is an excellent recruiter. Adams, Childs, Wright, Johnson, Wingo, Davis, these guys are all sophomores or younger. The offense is taking flight because his guys are starting to hit the field. And the talent will continue to pour in. Remember how dominant Louisville was in the Big East a few years ago? Arkansas is a hell of a lot easier place to recruit to. Better college town, better college campus, some of the best facilities in the country, and, of course, the Southeastern Conference... Could Arkansas win the SEC? Could they compete for national championships? The sky seems like the limit.”
Little more than two years later, the stage was set. The Razorbacks reeled off a 21-5 record over the course of the next two seasons, losing a Sugar Bowl they should have won — to a team full of ineligible, eligible participants — and throttling eighth-ranked Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. Every single one of the players that I prematurely lauded as underclassmen realized their potential — an extreme rarity — and, as an added bonus, quarterback Tyler Wilson emerged as an even better quarterback than Ryan Mallett.
Wilson was on the cusp of leading a star-studded senior class (Cobi Hamilton, Chris Gragg, Tenarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith, among others) into 2012, and for the first time since a compulsively dishonest head coach deceived an entire town, Arkansas’ recruiting class was shaping up as one of the best in the nation. It seemed as though the Hogs would win big in February, win even bigger in the fall, and the lingering demons of Jack Crowe, Danny Ford and Nutt would finally be exorcised in favor of a return to the prominance of yesteryear.
Then, on Feb. 1, National Signing Day, junior college stand-out Courtney Gardner chose Oklahoma. T.J. Yeldon signed with the Crimson Tide, Trey Williams picked Texas A&M, Chaz Elder chose South Carolina, and Thomas Johnson decided to spend the next four years losing to the Sooners in the Red River Rivalry.
Dorial Green-Beckham, the nation’s top overall recruit, leaned toward Fayetteville throughout the recruiting process. But an eleventh hour push from the home-state Missouri Tigers proved decisive, as DGB broke the collective heart of Hog Country on national television. Days later, when Arkansas’ consolation prize, wide receiver Devonte Neal, committed to Notre Dame, the Razorbacks watched in disbelief as the school finished as the runner-up in the sweepstakes for each of its eight ESPN150 recruits.
Two months later, alongside a highway in Madison County, a motorcycle overturned.
The details of that particular crash and its profound impact on the University of Arkansas are well documented. Petrino is gone. A bankrupt John L. Smith is in. Hog fans, ever the eternal optomists, point to Wilson and Hamilton and Davis, and they say, “We’re going to be fine.” And, sure, the Razorbacks are loaded. And, yes, the gods of the SEC are taking it easy — as easy as SEC gods can take it — with Alabama and LSU coming to Fayetteville, and Georgia, Missouri and Florida missing from the schedule.
Still, it seems as though vindication may be short lived.
ESPN released its updated recruiting rankings Thursday, and Arkansas is noticeably absent. Two hundred and eight of the ESPN300 have given verbal committments. Zero of those 208 are committed to the Razorbacks — which puts the Hogs one behind Texas State. The newest parcel of pigs — in the wake of an embarassment of near misses — is highlighted by D’Arthur Cowan and Keon Hatcher; ranked No. 171 and No. 177, respectively.
Now, I know, recruiting rankings are flawed, yada, yada, and so on, and so forth. To some degree that’s correct, but mostly only as it applies to the Lorenzo Bookers and Bryce Browns of the world — overhyped kids that failed to fulfill expectations at the next level. Rarely, on the other hand, do overlooked preps come from the depths of two- and three-stars to lead programs. The only reason it seems relatively prevelant, is that it’s a lot more fun to talk about Sam Bradford than it is Tim Tebow. For every Mark Ingram, there are hundreds of Jim Youngbloods.
Tyler Wilson, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, Knile Davis, Cobi Hamilton — all four-star recruits. I’ll see your Jake Bequette and raise you ten Freddy Burtons. The only ones complaining about flawed rankings are the ones missing out on the top-shelf talent.
The point is: recruiting matters. And it is going to catch up to the Hogs during the next few seasons. No one likes to take a step back when the previous ascension has occurred as rapidly and consistently as it has at Arkansas, but you can’t win the SEC West with a locker room full of three-star recruits, and that is precisely the barrel down which the Razorbacks are currently staring.
Jeff Long handled the Petrino situation as well as any athletic director could have. Hiring an interim shot caller that the players were familiar with, rather than rushing into a Garrick McGee hire, was absolutely the correct choice. But no one is going to commit to a guy that is in the midst of a 10-month contract. For that matter, even if Smith was under a 10-year contract, no one from that hard-to-reach shelf that I mentioned is signing on to play for him over Hugh Freeze and James Franklin — let alone Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.
Unlike every M. Night Shyamalan film ever written, Arkansas’ enormous motorcycle — er, I mean train — wreck was impossible to predict. Six months ago, we knew exactly where the program was headed — until we didn’t.
Amid this nearly comical catastrophe, the Razorbacks are left with one more undeniable conundrum: Smith needs to lose. Any blind hog caller pulling for a Sugar Bowl run is missing the big picture. Even as few as two losses likely sends Arkansas’ interim packing. Three seals the deal. But, if Wilson & Co. pile up 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl berth? Well, then there’s a chance that Long pulls a Bill Stewart.
With potential replacements like Gus Malzahn, Steve Sarkisian and Gary Patterson dangling along the realm of possibility, settling for a mediocre head coach with minimal recruiting stroke would prove immeasurably detrimental to the development of the school’s most important program — perhaps even stunting its growth for yet another generation.
Much like Ohio State (Urban Meyer) and North Carolina (Larry Fedora) achieved considerable gain through the losses of Luke Fickell and Everett Withers, the Hogs will be in a position to do the same, subsequent to the relative failure of John L. Smith.
The time has come for calculated patience.