Arkansas coaches keep focus during search, limbo
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas assistant head coach Taver Johnson has done his best to put his blinders on for nearly two weeks now.
Following Bobby Petrino's paid leave and then his firing, Johnson and the rest of the Razorbacks assistant coaches were left to pick up the pieces — both on and off the field.
With Petrino's firing a week old now, the football program remains in a state of flux as athletic director Jeff Long searches for Petrino's replacement and the team prepares for its spring game Saturday. The assistant coaches are trying to hold the program together, and they're doing so while awaiting their own fate.
The limbo they face is hardly an ideal situation, both in terms of job security and selling the future of the program, but they've done their best to put the uncertainty out of sight, out of mind.
"It's always tough, but the limbo state comes if you're thinking about it," Johnson said. "We have a lot of work to do this spring yet. ... The limbo part, you can't think about that. Once you think about that, you get distracted and then all your focus goes away from the main thing."
That main thing for Johnson is easy: Competing for the Southeastern Conference and national championships. Those are the goals Petrino laid out for Arkansas when he was hired in 2007, goals he appeared on track for after improving the Razorbacks' win totals in each of his four seasons.
Petrino's stint at Arkansas came to a stunning end last week in the wake of the April 1 motorcycle accident that led to revelations of a mistress, her hiring on the football staff and a $20,000 gift for a car from the married father of four.
Long fired Petrino on April 10, keeping Johnson in charge of the program for the time being. Long hasn't offered an update on the coaching search since, but he said last week that he would consider hiring both a proven, permanent head coach now as well as promoting a current member of the staff on an interim basis before opening the search back up after next season.
Those options are at opposite ends of the spectrum for a coaching staff trying to sell the Razorbacks to recruits.
Johnson has been through the uncertainty of the coaching profession before. The former Ohio State assistant was with the Buckeyes last season while they dealt with a memorabilia-for-cash scandal that cost coach Jim Tressel his job after it became clear he knew players were improperly selling Ohio State mementos but didn't report it.
Johnson was hired at Arkansas in January, well before Petrino's motorcycle accident and the fallout that followed. Still, he doesn't regret joining the Razorbacks in the least — even with his own future now uncertain after moving his family from Ohio to Fayetteville.
"No, no, not at all," Johnson said. "Not one bit. Things happen for a reason. My family and I, this coaching staff, these players, we're all here for a reason."
Several Arkansas players have lobbied to Long and publicly in the last week their desire to keep the current coaching staff intact through the upcoming season. Quarterback Tyler Wilson has played under Petrino's offensive system for four seasons, earning first-team All-SEC honors last year, and is hesitant to enter his final season with a new direction.
The Razorbacks had already started spring practice before Petrino's accident, and a new coach would be forced to implement his system during the relatively short window of practice time in August.
"I'm going to respect the administration's decision, but it would be tough," Wilson said. "I'm not going to lie. It would be tough to bring a new coach in, just because it's new on everybody. It's a quick turnaround learning the system and all that, but like I said, I will respect the administration's decision."
Wilson wouldn't declare his support for one assistant coach over another as an interim in Petrino's place, but he noted his strong relationship with Paul Petrino, Arkansas' offensive coordinator and brother of Bobby Petrino.
Paul Petrino returned to the Razorbacks in December after a two-year stint as Illinois' offensive coordinator, and he's familiar with Wilson and other Arkansas players after coaching them for two seasons before leaving for the Illini.
For all of the talk of offensive familiarity, the defense would also face a difficult transition with a new staff. Defensive coordinator Paul Haynes was hired in December and led the Razorbacks to a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State, and the former Ohio State assistant has spent much of this spring putting his stamp on a unit that hopes to be as renowned as its offensive counterparts.
It's just another reason for Arkansas to stick with what it knows, at least in the eyes of Paul Petrino.
"I think the smartest thing (Long) could do is to keep the whole staff for a year, because without a spring ball it would be too hard to put in an offense and defense" Petrino said. "So, keep the staff for a year, let us coach it and go win. The kids understand what we're doing. They know what we're doing. So let's keep doing it."
On Tuesday, the school also announced it had received $1.25 million in the form of two gifts from donors citing "the courageous leadership" of Long.
The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation approved a $1 million gift to help fund a new academic resource and study center and dining hall for the 460 student-athletes at Arkansas, an $18 million-$23 million plan that remains in the conceptual stages. Foundation board Chairman Fred W. Smith also made a personal donation of $250,000.
"The courageous leadership demonstrated by Jeff Long in the course of recent events has further affirmed our confidence in his leadership and his vision for intercollegiate athletics at the University of Arkansas," Smith said in a statement released by the school. "Mr. Long acted with integrity and with the best interests of Razorback student-athletes and the University of Arkansas in mind."
Long said he was surprised and humbled by the donations.