One year later, the sun is shining

Tim Horton thought someone was pulling a prank when he got a text message, one year ago today, that said his boss, Arkansas Coach Bobby Petrino, had been in a motorcycle accident.

Bobby Petrino showed up for work the Tuesday following his motorcycle wreck wearing a neck brace and with scrapes and cuts on his face.

April Fools! Haha. No big deal.

“And then I found out about it early Monday morning,” Horton said April 3, 2012, two days after Petrino’s infamous crash outside Fayetteville.

Horton was referring to the wreck, not the details that were later revealed.

Today, fans that make up Razorback Nation can look back on it all and shake their head. It was so surreal. And while there could be a few bumps ahead, the vibe on The Hill is a lot better these days. They’ve yet to coach a game, but Bret Bielema and his staff have said the right things and closed strong in recruiting in February. They’ve instilled confidence that brighter days are ahead, something John L. Smith was never able to do.

And motorcycle jokes are funny again, as we saw when Bielema told a crowd in North Little Rock on Feb. 7 that “once you get to know me, you'll realize that I don't need a motorcycle.” Yes, the audience roared.

But as we know, there was no punch line on April 10, 2012 – the day Petrino was fired. I worked 20-plus hours that day. Trust me, it wasn’t a joke. Well, maybe it was, but it was on Arkansas fans – and even Athletic Director Jeff Long. That’s because Petrino was lauded for returning to work the Tuesday after the crash, wearing a neck brace, looking medicated because of four broken ribs and an injured vertebrae, and with his forehead, nose, cheeks and lips scraped and/or cut – proof that he wasn’t wearing a helmet.

“The ironic thing was I was sitting in the kitchen, Becky (his wife) and I,” Petrino said that day, “and I had two helmets out. I said, ‘This one's going to be really heavy and hot and this one makes me look like a cone head so I think I will just go with the hat.’ Obviously bad call, we wouldn’t have converted the third down.”

That Petrino, he was one tough son-of-a-gun, I said the Tuesday after his crash. And we all knew he’d be back at work as soon as possible, some of his assistants stated.

Bobby Petrino (left) and Bret Bielema (right) have much different personalities.

Somewhere around that time, word started leaking out that Petrino wasn’t alone on that Harley-Davidson, even though the UA issued a statement claiming he was. At first, I just figured it was bad info, more gossip. But then people I trusted started saying the same thing.

And on the Thursday following the wreck, the Arkansas State Police report came out. Petrino had long-legged Jessica Dorrell, a member of his recruiting staff, on the bike with him.

Five days later, Long fired Petrino, the guy who had won 21 games the past two seasons.

Less than two weeks after that, John L. was hired. “SMILE!”

There were plenty of jokes that followed – most of them for the wrong reasons, and most coming from out-of-state or from fans of other teams.

I’ll spare you the John L. rehash. It’s too soon, and it’s anything but funny for Arkansas fans.

But throughout the turmoil, Long and his inner circle seemed to remain confident of a solid hire, and according to prominent boosters, there were promises made. Be patient, they were told. A big name will be brought in.

Time will tell if Bret Bielema – the son of a hog farmer – is the right man to right the ship. But most fans seem to feel good about the direction of the program.

As one former Razorback quickly pointed out to me, you could notice the differences during Saturday’s scrimmage, the first time the media was allowed to watch the Hogs practice this spring. Screaming – especially accentuation of the negative – seemed to be at a minimum.

There might have been a curse word or two from members of the coaching staff. It’s college football, after all. But it was nothing like when Petrino was around. He would often stand by quietly, then explode with profanity at some poor guy who didn’t do things exactly like he wanted him to. And a few minutes later, he would do it again, and again.

Boot camp – that would be a good way to describe Petrino practices, except the breaking down of young athletes never seemed to be followed by a building up, or at least not that I saw. For better or worse, it appeared to be all business all the time for Petrino.

John L. practices had some of the same feel, probably because of the Petrino assistants who were still around, but the head coach was a lot looser – too loose, many would say, causing attention to detail to disappear and discipline to erode as the season turned ugly.

During Saturday's practice, Bielema appeared to be a CEO type of head coach, and he his assistants had a more positive coaching style that what had been seen at the UA in recent years. Judging from the notes Bielema was taking during practice and from the media’s brief experiences dealing with the new crew, the attention to detail is back.

However, Bielema can be a fiery guy, too, according to recruits who have attended some of the Razorbacks’ closed workouts and according to past reports out of Wisconsin. Players aren't holding hands and singing Kumbaya, but I doubt they dread going to practice like some did in the past.

“A coach that I really admire used to have something hanging on his wall that said ‘Praise loudly and criticize softly,’” Bielema said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “I really try to follow that as much as I can. I think I want kids to know that when I speak to them, it means something and is not just motor mouth or diarrhea of the mouth. You want it to be sensitive to what we are going through.”

As we all know, most of this team has already been through a whole lot in the past 365 days. And pre-December, a large helping of it was bad.

There’s no doubt that April Fools Day will continue to have a special meaning for Arkansas fans for quite a while. But look around. The sun is shining in Fayetteville again.

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