FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – “You want to talk about the black cloud,” Pat Gazzola says.
He leads me to the back room of The Catfish Hole, the restaurant he owns on the west edge of town. Gazzola was 11 when the 1960 Arkansas football team came through his hometown of Fort Smith on the way home from beating Texas. Razorbacks star Lance Alworth, future NFL Hall-of-Fame receiver, gave young Pat an autograph. That moment led to this room. Photos of Razorback legends cover the walls, and A-R-K-A-N-S-A-S is spelled out in eight squares of stained glass.
There’s an empty space between the “R” and the “K.”
That’s where Bobby Petrino’s picture used to be.
Gazzola used to have a bunch of Petrino photos back here. That was before April 1, when Petrino wrecked his Harley Davidson Road King on a state road southeast of Fayetteville. That was before Petrino lied and said he was alone on the bike. That was before it turned out his passenger was a 25-year-old former volleyball player who was not his wife. (He was also not her fiancé.) That was before it was revealed that Petrino had hired her over 158 other applicants for a job in the football office, and had given her $20,000 as a gift. That was before he admitted the affair. That was before athletic director Jeff Long, having learned all this, fired Petrino on April 10.
Petrino would come to The Catfish Hole to do his radio show, and he’d bring recruits for supper, but he didn’t socialize. He ate Gazzola’s food but never once said if he liked it. That matters to Gazzola now, but didn’t matter so much before April 1, because Petrino had built the best Razorbacks team in a generation. Last year Arkansas won 11 games for the first time since 1977, when Lou Holtz was coach.
Gazzola says Jeff Long had to fire Petrino, that it was the right thing to do. But he knows that for all Petrino’s flaws as a man, his gifts as a coach could have brought trophies to Fayetteville. Especially this year. With a loaded team and a friendly schedule, Arkansas fans dream of winning it all. Or dreamed, before Petrino crashed.
“I get mad every time I think about him, bless his heart,” Gazzola says. (In the South “bless his heart” can mean many things, but almost never does it actually mean “bless his heart.”) “He threw so much away.”
Gazzola has a banner welcoming the new coach, John L. Smith, former head coach at Louisville and Michigan State and assistant under Petrino. There’s a new photo of Smith in the Arkansas Room. But not in the big space between the “R” and the “K.”
“He’s on a 10-month contract,” Gazzola says. “And one of those big photos, to get it framed and all, that’s $350 …”
Gazzola looks down and studies a bowl of his coleslaw, as if looking for hope in the cabbage.
* * *
Arkansas claims one national championship in its history: in 1964, when the Razorbacks finished 11-0 with a team that included the Dallas Cowboys’ future J.J.s (owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson). But back then, multiple polls often chose different champions. The AP and UPI voted before the bowl games and chose Alabama, which was 10-0 at the time but lost the Orange Bowl. Other polls picked Notre Dame and Michigan. The point is, Arkansas has been playing football since 1894, and in all that time all it can claim is a single national title from 48 years ago, and that one’s disputed.
College football is not the NFL. There’s no parity. A handful of teams contend for the title just about every year. A big group at the bottom never has a chance. For those in the middle -- teams like Arkansas -- everything has to break just right. If not, it could be half a century before the comet flares again.
Which is why no other team in college football has so much riding on this season.
Arkansas is deep with seniors, starting with preseason All-SEC quarterback Tyler Wilson, who passed up the NFL draft to come back. Eight starters return from an offense that scored 37 points a game. Running back Knile Davis -- who ran for 1,300 yards two years ago -- is back from a broken ankle that caused him to miss last season.
The schedule sets up as well as it can in the merciless SEC West. Last year, the Razorbacks’ only losses were road games at Alabama and LSU -- the two best teams in the country. This year, Arkansas gets both at home.
The players have known all this since the moment last season ended. In April, Long met with the players just before announcing to the public that he was firing Petrino. After Long left the room, the players got up to leave, simmering with anger. Senior linebacker Tenarius Wright stood and said two words: Sit down.
Wright and Wilson talked to the team, and had the same message: Nothing changes. We can still be champions.
“We don’t want to go back to the Liberty Bowl after going to the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl,” Wright said later. “I still want to be a champion and everyone else in this room wants to be. We’re just going to have a new face leading us out of the tunnel.”
* * *
GET YOUR PISS HOT!
Somebody at Arkansas’ media day tries to get John L. Smith to admit he’s the one who introduced the phrase to the Arkansas team. They even have GYPH t-shirts now.
“I don’t know where it came from,” John L. says, not looking anybody in the eye. “Deny, deny, deny.”
Later, up in his office, I ask him again. One on one, it’s harder to dodge. He laughs and gives up: “Oh, I’ve been saying it for a long time. I think it’s kind of self-explanatory.”
The thing is, it’s not self-explanatory. Piss is already hot, right? So the idea is to get it hotter? How would you even do that? And what would you do with it when you got it hot? (Please do not email me with answers.)
I don’t actually ask him these questions, partly because I want the interview to continue, but mostly because they’re beside the point, which (I think) is this: Getting your piss hot might fire up a young man, and if you don’t overthink it, it makes a loopy sort of sense. Which, as it happens, is also a good way to describe John L. Smith.
Start with this: He goes by John L., and everybody sort of runs it together so it comes out John-El, like Superman’s rowdy uncle. He’s 63 now and started coaching 42 years ago. He was head coach at Idaho and Utah State and Louisville. In all three places, Bobby Petrino was one of his assistants. Then John-El went to Michigan State, where he ensured his immortality on YouTube by slapping himself during a press conference after losing to Illinois and ripping his coaches after an end-of-half bungle against Ohio State. The Spartans fired him in 2006, and in ’09 he came to Arkansas as special-teams coach, to work for the guy who used to work for him.
He left last December for Ogden, Utah, for the head-coaching job at Weber State, his alma mater. Then April 1 came around, and Petrino wrecked, and John-El’s wife, Diana, watched ESPN and updated her husband every night. After Petrino got fired, Diana told John-El: You should be interested in this. He was. The day he took the job, the moving company was loading their furniture in Fayetteville to take it to Utah. Diana called and told them to leave it there.
That 10-month contract (it expires in March) pays him $850,000 -- sweet cash for most human beings, and a big boost to John-El, who has announced plans to file for bankruptcy because of a bad land deal in Kentucky. (Never fight a land war in Asia, and never make a land deal in Kentucky.) Still, $850,000 is hair-care money for most top college football coaches. (Petrino, for example, made about $3.8 million last year.)
The money speaks. The contract speaks. Arkansas did not plant John-El deep. There is open air around him, and little room for mistakes. He is used to this. Enjoys it, even. “I’ve read too much Hemingway,” he says, and so he has run with the bulls in Pamplona, and skydived from 14,000 feet, and longs to ski the glaciers in the Grand Tetons.
He tells his players about all this, because “My goodness, we’re only here one time, and this is life, and you better enjoy it, it’s an adventure. … It’s like I tell the football team, you don’t ever want to look back and say ‘What if, what if I had worked harder, what if I had made this play?’ in the same way I don’t want to say, what if I hadn’t jumped out of that airplane. So I guess that’s just sort of a philosophy of, Why not?”
I am tempted here to simply give you a thousand words of John-El quotes, like when he said of Tyler Wilson, “He’s kind of like a rose, a pretty little flower starting to blossom.” (Try to picture Nick Saban’s lips forming those words.) But this is not about John-El’s future as a motivational speaker, this is about whether he can beat Alabama on Sept. 15, and LSU on Nov. 23, and if he does, what that might mean. He doesn’t shy away from it.
“We have a chance at this point in time, this point in history, opportunity is that door opening,” he says. “The door of opportunity. It’s an opportunity to be a special football team.”
Somewhere around the third or fourth door of opportunity, I notice that John-El hasn’t done much with the head coach’s office. A dozen copies of a book called “Extreme Focus” are stacked on a shelf, but they’re not his; Petrino left those behind for maximum irony. The display cases are pretty much empty, the desk pretty much bare.
There’s a single postcard tacked to the wall.
“Mount Kilimanjaro,” John-El says, and he reaches over and touches the picture.
He climbed that mountain once.
* * *
Bobby Petrino apologized to the ESPN camera. He said he couldn’t understand why he had an affair with Jessica Dorrell, the former volleyball player. He said he’d now be more forgiving of others’ mistakes.
“I’m working hard to save my marriage,” he said. “I have a better understanding of what life really is about.”
He choked up once, and looked like he was about to cry. But the tears did not come.
It’s likely there were also no tears in Auburn, where Petrino interviewed for the coaching job while Tommy Tuberville was still there; or Louisville, where Petrino left six months after signing a 10-year contract; or Atlanta, where Petrino quit the Falcons for Arkansas after just 13 games, leaving a goodbye letter in the players’ lockers.
He spends some of his time now up in Rogers, north of Fayetteville. He talks to his old friend John-El. He has called Tyler Wilson, and Tenarius Wright, and some other players, partly to apologize and partly to tell them to get better. There’s one member of the staff he talks to the most, because there’s one more twist to this tale: Paul Petrino, Bobby’s brother, is Arkansas’ offensive coordinator.
They sort of look alike. Paul has been getting some stares in Fayetteville.
Paul spent 2008-09 here under Bobby, then went to Illinois to run the offense and, he hoped, to land a head-coaching job somewhere. That didn’t happen, and Paul’s twin daughters were about to start high school, so he and his wife talked about where to live. They liked Fayetteville. Bobby hired him back. Paul and his family closed on their house two weeks before Bobby wrecked.
With Bobby gone, Paul figured he was, too. But John-El came back, and Paul got to stay, and how he’s in charge of what might be the best offense in the country.
Paul is open and likable and funny and pretty much the opposite of how everyone describes his brother. But he understands what Bobby put together here. And after the last few months, he has decided there’s not much point in figuring out the future.
“I think what we’ve got to do, we’ve all got to act like we’re seniors,” he says. “This is our one year. This is all we’ve got.”
* * *
The thermometer hit 104 on the first day of practice, but practice didn’t start until 6:30 p.m. By then, it had tapered off to about 101.
Right away, in the passing drills, you could see Arkansas’ promise and its problems. Wilson was so sharp the ball didn’t touch the ground for 15 minutes. Receiver Cobi Hamilton cut patterns like a figure skater. Tight end Chris Gragg looked like a secret Gronkowski, hauling in deep passes over the middle.
One reason this might’ve looked easy for the Arkansas offense is that it was playing the Arkansas defense. Sacking the quarterback was banned in these drills, and coaches say the pass rush is the defense’s strength. True or not, the receivers were wide open. Teams that can throw will give Arkansas trouble.
But it’s a myth that you have to win the SEC (and by extension, lately, the national title) with defense. Yes, Alabama and LSU are stout. But Auburn won two years ago on Cam Newton’s back, and Tim Tebow’s 2008 Florida team scored 611 points (!) in 14 games. If Arkansas can win that way against the Tide and the Tigers, it can win it all.
If it can’t, Razorback fans will spend the rest of history wondering just how much Bobby Petrino wrecked.
After practice, John-El entertained at the news conference. On the practice as a whole: “It was in, it was out, it was sharp, it was energy, it was flowing.” Somebody asks him about a backup QB who didn’t practice, and he takes a long pause before he says: “He was just being a sissy.”
As he talked, a black cloud that had been gathering all evening rolled toward the practice fields. Lightning started to pop. The players had left in buses. John-El’s car was half a mile away, back at the stadium. He took a quick look up then put his head down and ran through the parking lot, trying to beat the storm.