LITTLE ROCK — Counting down to the start of college football, Razorback fans line up behind both anticipation and uncertainty.
An unscientific poll of about a dozen acquaintances, relatives, and friends shows the sentiment divided about as evenly as the electorate in the presidential race where a recent CNN poll says President Obama and Mitt Romney are in a statistical dead heat.
In August, when optimism is fed by coaches and players and people dismiss deficiencies proclaimed by realists, anticipation is always abundant. It is the large helping of uncertainty — both immediate and long term — that makes this season unlike any other.
More than one season ticket holder has said he is not as excited about the season as he was before Bobby Petrino was canned. One said he would have bought two tickets instead of five if he had ordered after Jeff Long’s April 9 news conference.
The fox in the Aesop’s Fable who told the lion, "familiarity breeds contempt," didn’t know Petrino. With him, familiarity bred confidence.
The more fans saw of the product Petrino put on the field, the more certain they were that he was the right man to lead the Razorbacks to the SEC title game and beyond. And, the huge buyout gave them a sense of security. By the third year of his tenure, Petrino could do no wrong on the field. When was the last time an Arkansas fan second-guessed a Petrino strategy?
Virtually every time he makes a decision, Petrino successor John L. Smith butts heads with that loyalty. He has not had an opportunity to prove anything to the fans and the not knowing leads to questions.
For example, fans have second-guessed Smith’s decision to err on the side of caution with running back Knile Davis. If Petrino had kept Davis on the sideline for the opener against Jacksonville State and the second game against Louisiana-Monroe, fans would have agreed en masse, assuming that Petrino knew what Davis could do and that he wanted him unscathed for the Alabama game.
Many of those who have doubts about the upcoming season were in the camp that believed Arkansas was only a couple of Fayetteville victories from going to Atlanta in December and Miami in January. They did not want to hear about who would get it done at linebacker and in the secondary, musings about a second threat at wide receiver, claims that other SEC schools have coaches of Petrino’s quality, or that Arkansas had reached a plateau under Petrino.
On the other hand, they have wondered out loud whether Smith will cost Arkansas a game with a decision in the fourth quarter and how he will handle the ups and downs that are bound to occur during a 13-game season.
Give him a chance; this is not his first rodeo. He will not browbeat the players, but there is more than one way to motivate.
What happens with the 2012 team is only part of the picture. It is highly unlikely that Smith will be the head coach in 2013 and the question about who’s next will hover over the season, maybe even consume it, in the weeks to come. The fallout from a new hire includes the future of the competent staff of assistant coaches.
The best advice is to trust athletic director Jeff Long. He will, ESPN college football analyst Mark May told the Little Rock Touchdown Club, pursue his target like a rabid dog.
This week, Romney will get a popularity bump from all the hoop-t-do at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. This Saturday and next, Smith cannot do a thing to alter the sentiment of Arkansas fans. His first opportunity to make an impression will come Sept. 15 against Alabama, when his every move will be scrutinized to the nth degree. If Arkansas loses, Smith will be blamed. To heck with the talent on the other sideline.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.