Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, left, and star QB Tyler Wilson talk during practice Saturday in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — As athletic director Jeff Long walked out of the room after telling Arkansas’ players that Bobby Petrino had been fired Tuesday evening, a void in leadership had already formed.
Without Petrino’s heavy hand and detailed plans to guide the way, a few players stood up to leave the Broyles Athletic Center — thinking the meeting was finished. There was no yelling, only the rumbling of under-the-breath comments in an otherwise silent room as the enormity of the athletic director’s announcement settled in.
That was the moment when Tyler Wilson and Tenarius “Tank” Wright filled that void at Arkansas. The pair of rising seniors had too much invested with four years of endless and mind-numbing work to let their teammates slip away that easily — literally and figuratively.
There was no disrespect, no interrupting of Long’s announcement. There were only two of the most respected and longest-tenured Razorbacks left standing, taking the reins of an environment that felt like it was spiraling out of control.
“I just stood up and told everybody to sit back down and delivered a message that we have to stay here and stick together,” Wright said. “And be one family with the coaches that we do have right now with (assistant head coach) Taver Johnson being the director at head coach right now.”
And if anyone had earned the right to talk following Long, it was Wilson, who sat patiently behind Ryan Mallett for two years and waited his turn before leading the Razorbacks to an amazing season last year and earned All-SEC honors.
“I felt afterward it was important I step up and say a few words,” Wilson said. “Not give a pep talk because that’s not what it’s about, but (to) make sure we’re all on the same page and assure the guys that we’re going to be a successful football team and our goals are still in place.”
Nobody — not Wilson, Wright or any of the coaches — is sure what’s next for Arkansas.
The future of the Razorbacks lies within the decision-making powers of Long. That’s the same Long who appeared to have a “home-run hire” when Petrino called and was ready to leave the Atlanta Falcons after just 13 games in 2007.
Petrino’s tenure will be remembered for some of the highest highs (the school’s first BCS bowl game, 21-5 in his last two seasons) and lowest of lows (his sudden and stunning firing that was brought on by a mistress, Jessica Dorrell, and her hiring to the football staff, a $20,000 gift and lies to Long) in the history of Arkansas football.
More than anything, however, it could be defined by a pair of fifth-year seniors who want nothing more than to complete the mission Petrino made seem like a realistic goal.
That goal is a national championship. And whoever takes over this group of Razorbacks in the next weeks or months will inherit a group that believes it’s a very real possibility.
“(Petrino) instilled the ideas and philosophies,” Wilson said, “and if we can continue those we’re going to be a heck of a football team.”
Petrino’s brother, Paul — the team’s offensive coordinator — would agree. And he spoke for the first time Friday about the fallout of his brother’s firing.
Paul Petrino knew the questions were coming, and he couldn’t hide the passion behind his words.
Paul Petrino looked straight at his questioner, his voice clearly shaking.
“I had no idea. I did not know anything about it,” Petrino said. “Bobby’s my brother. I love him. I will always love him. He made a mistake. He’s paying deeply for it, and I’m putting all my focus right now into doing the very best I can in coaching (quarterback) Tyler Wilson, and coaching this whole football team and helping my family get through it, too.”
Paul Petrino seemed almost relieved while answering football-related questions following the Arkansas scrimmage. Coaching, he said, is the easy part.
It’s life away from the field that’s been difficult for Paul Petrino since the April 5 revelation that his brother had an inappropriate relationship with the 25-year-old Dorrell. Since then, more and more details of the lengthy affair have been made public via Bobby Petrino’s text message history and Long’s investigation.
Paul Petrino said the continuing revelations surrounding his brother have put himself and his family in difficult positions. Petrino came back to Arkansas from Illinois after last season, saying when he was hired in December that he wanted his children to go to the same high school all four years.
Now that goal is in jeopardy as Long searches for a new coach. He has asked the current staff to remain through at least of the end of spring practice.
Johnson, who has been in charge of the program since Bobby Petrino was first put on leave April 5, made it clear he and the rest of the coaching staff wants to remain intact moving forward.
“We all do,” Johnson said. “I think our guys know that we’re ready to get together like a fist and we’re ready to get going.”
Paul Petrino, meanwhile, is doing his best to balance his concern for his family’s well-being with his concern for his brother, whom he talks with every day and said is “not doing great.”
“It’s hard. You know, it’s hard,” Paul Petrino said. “And I’m proud of (his children). They went to school every day and they never missed a day of school. They had their heads up high. They carried their chest high and I’m proud of them. They’ve been really good.”
Several Arkansas players also spoke Friday, and none of them professed any idea of Bobby Petrino’s actions away from the field. They expressed their admiration, along with disappointment, for the only coach they’ve had for the last four seasons.
“Obviously it’s been tough on everybody,” Wilson said. “It’s a unique situation. It’s tough for everybody, but I think it’s unique that our team has been very coherent through all of it.”
Wilson has played his entire collegiate career under Petrino’s offensive system — and flourished. The Razorbacks have led the SEC in passing in each of the last three seasons.
That familiarity is the primary reason Wilson had a meeting with Long and expressed his preference to keep the current coaching staff intact through next season. He wouldn’t, however, go as far as to endorse any assistant coach over another for the role of head coach.
Wilson also said he never considered trying to leave Arkansas for the NFL’s supplemental draft, after bypassing the draft after last season for a chance to win both SEC and national championships.
“That’s never been an option,” Wilson said. “I think I decided to become a Razorback, again, and I want to continue to concrete my legacy here as a quarterback. So I’m a Razorback.”
All of Arkansas’ hopes for next season were put on hold following the April 1 motorcycle accident that put Petrino in the hospital. Four days later, a state police report revealed Dorrell was riding with Petrino during the accident — a fact the coach had omitted while discussing the crash with the media and Long.
Arkansas running back Knile Davis admitted shock and hurt following the revelations about Petrino and his firing. He said he’d like to see running backs coach Tim Horton elevated to head coach, but his primary concern is keeping the same offensive system that’s helped the Razorbacks become a national contender.
Davis said he’s stayed off Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites this week while the Petrino news has swirled. He even turned his cellphone off at one point to avoid any more questions.
“We’ve put a lot of hard work over these last four years to get where we’re at,” Davis said. “Just to see it go down the drain in 24 hours is just, you know, it hurts. But we can’t do anything but move forward.”