HOOVER, Ala. — In April, athletic director Jeff Long gathered the Arkansas football team in the locker room to tell the players that coach Bobby Petrino had been fired.
Once it was over, the stunned Razorbacks began to file out.
That’s when linebacker Tenarius Wright stood up.
“Everyone sit down. The meeting’s not over,” Wright said.
That moment was the first of two turning points that just might have made Arkansas a stronger team heading into another brutal season in the Southeastern Conference West Division, even without Petrino.
In the wake of the scandal that cost Petrino his job, the team was galvanized, with players like Wright and quarterback Tyler Wilson — who also spoke in that meeting — embracing the belief that removing a coach doesn’t change the talent on the field, or the team’s expectations.
Coming off an 11-2 season with losses to LSU and Alabama, the Razorbacks are still gunning for a national title.
“Our main thing was just trying to keep everything as close to normal as we could,” said running back Knile Davis, who said he doesn’t think the team loses anything without Petrino.
The second turning point came with the hiring of a new coach.
A quirky 63-year-old who has gone skydiving, run with bulls and put on a memorable performance at SEC Media Days, John L. Smith can hardly be described as “normal.” But his 10-month contract to run the show in Arkansas restored some calm to a program in turmoil.
With 19 years as a head coach elsewhere and three as the Razorbacks’ linebackers and special teams coach (2009-11), Smith was an experienced and familiar face who could maintain the status quo.
“It was really a breath of fresh air,” Wright said.
Of course, with a unique personality, Smith also puts his own twist on the job.
For one, things are more relaxed and personal. Wright said he often drops by Smith’s office just to chat, with a recent subject being the coach’s mission to lose weight. Wright also calls Smith by his first name, something he never did with Petrino.
“He wants us to come to him about anything and bring in our problems, maybe have someone talk to you if you need counseling,” Wright said. “His thing is all about making sure your personal life is right.”
That’s the bug that bit Petrino, whose extramarital affair, unfair hiring of his mistress, motorcycle accident and ensuing cover-up spelled the end of his run in Fayetteville.
Petrino called several of his former players this week to apologize and wish them good luck.
“I could hear the humbleness and the hurt in his voice,” Davis said. “He was really hurt by it. I told him, ‘Coach, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’ll come back from this.’ ”
With their minds at ease, the Razorbacks are freed up to focus on football and getting over the Bama-LSU hump that kept them out of the title picture in 2011. They lost both games by 24 points, but hopes are high that this year will be different.
Wilson, one of the nation’s top returning passers, loses three key targets but brings back tight end Chris Gragg and receiver Cobi Hamilton. The best news is in the backfield, where Davis will once again reside after missing last season with an ankle injury.
Davis is full speed and looking to build upon a remarkable 2010 campaign, when he tallied 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“I do feel like I’m the best running back in the SEC,” Davis said. “Not being conceited or arrogant; I feel like if you ask any other running back, they’ll say the same thing. I think that because of the work I put into it, I don’t feel like you can ask for a better back. I think I have everything that you need in a running back.”
As a coaching hired gun, Smith will have everything he needs at many positions to make the Hogs a contender for the SEC title.
If he pulls it off, that 10-month assignment could grow longer, and he’s well aware of that fact. Asked whether he hopes to remain as Arkansas’ coach after this year, Smith gave a loud and animated response.
“Well, certainly. Do I look stupid?” he said. “Don’t answer that question.”
With leaders like Wilson, Wright, Davis and Smith, Arkansas has already answered one of their biggest questions.
The rest will come in a matter of weeks.