Where Bobby Petrino’s Downfall Ranks Among Biggest ‘What Ifs’ in Arkansas Football History

Gus Malzahn, Bobby Petrino, Arkansas football

As it has every year since 2005, with the exception of the weird 2020 COVID year, the Arkansas football program will host an FCS team for a non-conference game Saturday.

Usually a cupcake that the Razorbacks put away easily before the band’s halftime performance, this year’s matchup brings not only a tough opponent — Missouri State is No. 5 in the FCS rankings — but also intriguing storylines.

The Bears are coached by Bobby Petrino, who was the head coach at Arkansas from 2008-11 and is the subject of one of the biggest “what if” questions in school history.

With a palpable buzz surrounding the game, Best of Arkansas Sports decided to try to put some perspective on that aspect and figure where “What if Petrino hadn’t wrecked his motorcycle?” slots in among the biggest “what if” events in Arkansas football history.

For the purpose of this list, we’ve limited it to just football — otherwise we’d have to include not hiring Bill Self in basketball and the ill-fated foul pop up in the 2018 College World Series — and events that happened away from the gridiron. That means alternatate history pathways like reversing the result of the 1969 Shootout or the Reggie Fish muffed punt are not included.

Without further ado, here is our top five…

1. What if… Arkansas successfully hired Bear Bryant in 1941 — or 1952?

Until Nick Saban’s current run at Alabama, many considered Paul “Bear” Bryant the greatest college football coach of all-time. His 323 career wins still rank third among Division I coaches, while his six national titles were a record until recently being surpassed by Saban.

Most of Bryant’s success was with the Crimson Tide, but he twice came close to being the head coach at Arkansas. The two instances were about a decade apart.

The first came in 1941. The Fordyce, Ark., native was a hot-shot assistant at Vanderbilt and folks in his home state were calling for him to return home for his first head coaching gig. The Razorbacks had just posted their fourth straight losing season and were 56-61-10 overall under 13-year head coach Fred Thomsen.

Bryant was quickly identified as the No. 1 candidate when it became clear that Arkansas would move on from Thomsen, so when he hopped in the car to drive from Nashville to Fayetteville, he felt like he was on his way to a “slam-dunk job interview,” as AL.com put it. That was Dec. 7, 1941.

About the time Bryant got to Memphis, he heard news about the attack on Pearl Harbor over the radio. He turned around and joined the Navy instead.

“The Japanese chose an opportune time to strike for Fred Thomsen, Arkansas coach, (and) an inopportune time for Bear Bryant, Vandy’s able line mentor,” a brief in the Tennessean on Dec. 18, 1941, read. “Had the Japs waited 10 days, it is almost certain that Arkansas would have bought up Thomsen’s contract and awarded the job to Bryant — if Bear wanted it.”

After World War II, Bryant got his first head coaching job at Maryland. He was there for one season before leaving to take the same position at Kentucky. The Wildcats quickly became a solid program and actually won their first and only SEC title in 1950 under Bryant.

However, Kentucky was — and always has been — a basketball school. That’s why Houston Nutt’s father played there around this time. But when Adolph Rupp’s squad got caught up in a point shaving scandal in 1951, Bryant started looking for an exit strategy.

Once again, Arkansas seemed like a logical landing spot. In 1952, Otis Douglas was on his way out after a last-place finish in the SWC and Arkansas flew Bryant in as a potential replacement. He was wined and dined by several people, including Little Rock businessman Jack Stephens.

Included in his offer was stock in an oil company. It was “a chance to get in on the ground floor,” Bryant later wrote in his memoir, Bear. “If I had taken it, I’d be worth $40 million now. I should have. I should have just said the hell with it and left, which is what I eventually did.”

Of course, there were also reports that one of Bryant’s stipulations was he didn’t want to be subservient to anyone. Arkansas even tried to make that happen, with a state legislative council actually voting 8-4 in favor of eliminating John Barnhill’s position of athletics director.

As fate would have it, though, Bryant once again didn’t take the job. He spent one more year at Kentucky before leaving for Texas A&M. He led the Aggies to an SEC title with a perfect 6-0 conference record just two years after going 0-6 in conference play.

Alabama, his alma mater, eventually called him home in 1958, the same year Arkansas hired its own legend, Frank Broyles. Who knows how things would have turned out had Bryant been with the Razorbacks at the time, but he almost certainly would have provided more stability from 1941-57, when they went through seven coaches in 17 years.

2. What if… Bobby Petrino hadn’t wrecked his motorcycle?

One of college football’s best offensive minds, Bobby Petrino needed just three years to get Arkansas football in its first — and only — BCS bowl. In 2010, the Razorbacks went 10-2 and earned a spot in the Sugar Bowl. He followed it up with an 11-win season capped by a win in the Cotton Bowl.

It was the first time in more than two decades that Arkansas had back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins and, with guys like Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton, Chris Gragg, Chris Smith and Trey Flowers coming back and Knile Davis returning from injury, the Razorbacks had their sights set on a national title in 2012.

However, what started out like a sick April Fool’s joke quickly turned into Arkansas’ worst nightmare, as Petrino was involved in a motorcycle wreck on April 1 that set in motion his eventual firing. Not only did the accident reveal his affair with Jessica Dorrell, but also the fact that he hired her as part of his staff. To make matters worse, Petrino then lied about it to athletics director Jeff Long. Nine days later, on April 10, Long announced his decision to fire Petrino.

Arkansas football fans don’t need to be reminded about what unfolded next, as the Razorbacks toiled in mediocrity at their best and hit the lowest of lows at their worst over a decade until current head coach Sam Pittman revived the program.

The drop off was immediate, as the Razorbacks went from preseason top-10 to out of the polls following an embarrassing Week 2 loss to ULM. That left fans to wonder how that 4-8 season might have been different under Petrino’s leadership and whether or not his success was sustainable.

After all, it wasn’t until his second stint at Louisville that Petrino finally got a Year 5 — and it resulted in him being fired amid a 2-10 season in which the Cardinals had the third-worst scoring defense in the country.

Listen to Chuck Barrett’s conversation with former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson about Bobby Petrino at the 4:50 mark:

3. What if… Houston Nutt, Gus Malzahn and the Springdale 5 made it work?

There is a lot to unpack with this situation, so we’ll just touch on the basics. In 2005, Gus Malzahn was the head coach at nationally-ranked Springdale High. The Bulldogs, led by national player of the year Mitch Mustain, dominated their competition on the way to a state title and ended the year ranked as high as No. 2 in the country.

Mustain was a five-star prospect and top-10 recruit, ranked ahead of the likes of future Heisman Trophy winners Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford. He and four teammates — Ben Cleveland, Andrew Norman, Bartley Webb and Damian Williams — made up what was known as the “Springdale 5.”

There was a lot of drama surrounding the recruitment of those players, who played just up the road from Fayetteville. With Mustain reportedly leaning toward leaving the state, Williams and Cleveland initially committing to Florida, and Webb committing to Notre Dame, plus back-to-back losing seasons by the Razorbacks, there was a lot of pressure on Houston Nutt. In an era before social media, message boards were abuzz with speculation.

Nutt eventually hired Malzahn as his offensive coordinator in an effort to reinvigorate his offense and land the heralded recruits. It seemingly worked, as all but Webb eventually signed with the Razorbacks and they joined forces with Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hills and others. After a season-opening loss to USC, they ripped off 10 straight wins — the first eight of which came with Mustain as the starting quarterback.

However, Mustain was eventually benched and Arkansas ended the season with a three-game skid in which it Reggie Fish’d the SEC Championship away. Everything fully unraveled after the season, as Malzahn left for the OC job at Tulsa and three of the four Springdale kids (Cleveland was the only holdover) transferred out.

Joining a loaded quarterback room at USC, Mustain never panned out, but Williams was a very good receiver for the Trojans. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2009, became a third-round pick and had a five-year NFL career.

Malzahn, meanwhile, enjoyed success at every stop. That includes winning a national championship as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2010, a conference championship as Arkansas State’s head coach in 2012 and two SEC West titles as Auburn’s head coach, including an appearance in the BCS National Championship following the 2013 season. Including a 1-1 start at UCF this year, he has a career record of 87-43 as a head coach.

Nutt ended up coaching one more season at Arkansas, in which McFadden finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy a second straight year, but the Razorbacks went just 8-5. Dealing with numerous controversies and an increasingly unhappy fanbase, he resigned and took the Ole Miss job.

Had things worked out, a common line of thinking among Arkansas football fans was that Nutt — a Little Rock native who played for the Razorbacks — could have shifted into the AD role when Frank Broyles retired and Malzahn — a Fort Smith native who also played for the Razorbacks — could have been promoted to head coach.

If it had actually unfolded like that, how would Mustain have developed under his former high school coach? Would Malzahn have enjoyed the same success at Arkansas that he did elsewhere? Would Nutt have been a better AD than Jeff Long?

Friend of the site John Nabors touched on this very topic over the summer:

4. What if… Todd Latourette hadn’t gotten arrested for driving while intoxicated in 1998?

Considering the way Houston Nutt’s tenure ended, it can be easy to forget the good moments. That includes an incredible start to his career at Arkansas, as he won his first eight games and got the Razorbacks up to No. 10 in the AP Poll heading into a showdown with No. 1 Tennessee.

The “what if” most Arkansas football fans remember from that game is the infamous “Stoernover,” when quarterback Clint Stoerner tripped over offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth’s leg and fumbled the ball to give Tennessee a chance to win in the closing seconds.

While that is certainly one of the most heartbreaking plays in school history, it didn’t automatically kill the Razorbacks’ season. In fact, many believed Arkansas would get a shot at revenge in the SEC Championship Game. The Razorbacks weren’t out of the national championship mix, either, because it was the first year of the BCS and they fell just two spots to No. 9 in those rankings with the loss.

All Arkansas needed to do was take care of business against a good, albeit unranked, Mississippi State team in Starkville and a bad LSU team in Little Rock.

That got much tougher during the week when placekicker Todd Latourette was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated early Thursday morning, leading to him being suspended for the Mississippi State game.

Without his All-SEC kicker, Nutt opted to go for it on fourth down from the 19-yard line rather than attempt a field goal early in the fourth quarter, and the Razorbacks failed to convert. Their next drive got into the red zone before an interception by Stoerner, but it’s worth noting that the lack of a kicker possibly contributed to a change in offensive philosophy.

Nothing is certain, but Latourette would have likely made either kick, as he was leading the SEC in field goal percentage at 71.4 percent (15 of 21) at the time of his suspension. Arkansas ended up losing 22-21 on a field goal in the closing seconds, so those three points — potentially six — loomed quite large and ultimately prevented the Razorbacks from winning the West.

Would Arkansas have gotten revenge in Atlanta? If so, would the BCS computers have made the Razorbacks one of the top two teams? Would Arkansas — which ended up losing to Tom Brady and Michigan in the Citrus Bowl — have had enough firepower to beat Florida State in the first ever BCS National Championship Game like Tennessee did?

5. What if… Basil Shabazz chose football over baseball out of high school?

When asked in an interview well after his retirement about the best player he ever faced, legendary Springdale High coach Jarrell Williams didn’t hesitate in his response: Basil Shabazz.

The Pine Bluff native is one of the greatest athletes the state has ever produced and his origin story has a mythical feel: He chased and caught rabbits with his bare hands as a kid, first dunked a basketball in fifth grade and was an All-State performer in four sports in high school.

Seemingly everyone has a story about seeing Shabazz run by, through, around or over defenders on the gridiron. Nolan Richardson described him as “a freak of nature,” but his top options coming out of Pine Bluff High in the Class of 1991 were to play college football, sign with Nike and train for the 1992 Olympics, or get drafted and begin a professional baseball career.

Shabazz ultimately picked the latter, as the St. Louis Cardinals took him in the third round and with the 77th overall pick of the 1991 MLB Draft. Although he stole 142 bases in 332 games across parts of five seasons, he hit just .233 and never got above Double-A before off-the-field concerns, a flirtation with college football and the MLB strike led to the end of his baseball career.

In 1995, Shabazz attempted a comeback in college football at UAPB, but a rocky relationship with the head coach and a major neck injury prevented him from living up to the hype that followed him from his high school days.

Recruiting rankings didn’t exist back then, but Shabazz almost certainly would have been a five-star prospect and one of the top running backs in his class. In fact, The Touchdown Club of Atlanta named him the 1990 Back of the Year, he was named the 1991 National High School Athlete of the Year and recruiting analyst Tom Lemming listed him as one of the 10 best players in the country.

According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Miami, Houston and Arkansas were Shabazz’s top three choices for football and the Razorbacks were in the lead. His mom wanted him to go to Fayetteville, he was fond of head coach Jack Crowe and the UA offered him a $1 million insurance policy.

One hiccup was Shabazz’s grades. Because he didn’t qualify academically, he’d have to be a Proposition 48 enrollee, meaning he’d have to sit out a season. Alas, he chose the immediate payday that was the St. Louis Cardinals and never wore an Arkansas uniform.

Had he chosen the college football route and signed with the Razorbacks, the first season Shabazz would have been eligible was 1992 — Arkansas’ first as a member of the SEC. Would his presence have helped avoid the embarrassing season-opening loss to The Citadel and saved Crowe’s job? Could he have led the Razorbacks to a better record than 3-7-1 and a more seamless transition into their new conference?

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