Senior College Football Columnist

While tourists look for crash site, Arkansas looks to stay on track


Tourists are flocking to Highway 16 to see where Petrino had his motorcycle accident. ( Original)  
Tourists are flocking to Highway 16 to see where Petrino had his motorcycle accident. ( Original)  

CROSSES, Ark. -- The man behind the counter of the Pig Trail By-Pass Country Café is the leading authority on Bobby Petrino in these parts. At least he was the first authority three weeks ago when that infamous motorcycle crashed less than a mile from here on that infamous day.

"It was a Sunday evening," Hooshang Nazarali said. "Someone came and told me. He was a good coach. Football has done real good. I don't know why he did that."

Nazarali does know that Petrino has been good for business. The Iranian ex-pat has run the humble convenience store on this lonely stretch of two-lane Highway 16 for 29 years. It's usually a welcome outpost for tourists, truckers and students traveling back and forth from the University of Arkansas 25 miles away.

Yes, it's even a haven for bikers as the store's fake traffic sign suggests: "Harley Parking Only. All Others Will Be Crushed." But since Arkansas' former coach wrecked his Harley, his life and perhaps Arkansas football on April 1, the Pig Trail has bustled.

"You couldn't believe, I bet a thousand people come," Nazarali said in his accented English. "Young, old take picture."

Of what? Well, there is the nearby crash scene itself. After surveying the road, it's easier to imagine how Petrino lost control as he headed down a steep grade after coming off a curve. There is a short skid mark. There is the brush pile in a culvert that may have acted as nature's air bag for college athletics' most recent dirt bag.

"I hate to be him at his house," Nazarali said. "I bet she's [wife Becky] going, 'You son of a b----. I'll get everything you've got.' I feel sorry for his kids."

Nazarali has had plenty of customers since Petrino's crash. ( Original)  
Nazarali has had plenty of customers since Petrino's crash. ( Original)  
There was another group worth our pity on Saturday. Up the road, the Razorback players and coaches who participated in the spring game are victims too. In a way, their homes have been wrecked too. Their futures are uncertain. During one of the best runs in Hog history, the program hangs in mid-air.

Which way it heads is largely up to AD Jeff Long. He knows this. The man who hired Petrino amid upheaval 4½ years ago is making the next biggest hire of his career. Petrino, you may have guessed, was his first. Long hinted strongly to Saturday that the Hogs' next coach could come from the current staff.

But wherever the new coach comes from, there is still the argument that the two biggest "heroes" of this scandal are Long and Petrino himself. Coach P because he made it a good job to have. Arkansas is coming off a school-record 11 wins. He left a solid foundation that has resulted in Arkansas' best two-year run in more than 40 years. Saturday's spring game drew a school record crowd. Petrino's legacy is further written in a new $40 million football facility that is under construction.

"Coach Petrino certainly left structure for our program," Long said. "He instilled these things for our players and our coaches. He's also revitalized our fan base prior to this incident. We were behind in those things. We're getting ready to make a big move forward.

"We still believe we can be stronger."

Long replaced the legendary Frank Broyles in 2008 after spending four years at Pittsburgh. The nation probably knows him as the guy who won the press conference 11 days ago by doing the right thing. In announcing Petrino's firing he was direct, emotional and left no doubt that the school didn't owe the coach a dime.

The support since then has been astounding. For two hours Saturday, Long signed autographs before the spring game.

"Every person came through," he said, "Thoughts, prayers, pride,' is what was repeated over and over. Nothing negative."

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Amid this messy divorce, Arkansas is trying to be something it seldom has been in the hyper-competitive SEC -- a factor. Long knows this, too. He sparked this current Arkansas program's upward trend by hiring Petrino in December 2007.

No amount of critical hindsight can change the fact that the AD got one of the best coaches available at the time. Back then it was easy to overlook Petrino's past transgressions because he won. Long could have been blamed, somewhat, if Petrino had left Arkansas for another job. He cannot be blamed for failing to see a covered-up affair that would be his coach's downfall.

That dearly departed son-of-b---- left a hell of a team. The Hogs claim a national championship in 1964 (Football Writers Association of America), a great 1969 (lost No. 1-2 matchup with Texas) and a 1977 Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma. But the only other time it won a combined 21 games in two seasons was 1964-65.

That's on Petrino, who led the Hogs to back-to-back Sugar and Cotton Bowl appearances. How do you hate the man when you have to love what he put together?

"I do miss coach," said tailback Knile Davis, a Heisman candidate coming back from a broken ankle.

"When he's here the intensity of practice is high. He brought that [drive] we needed. He was hard on us. People don't understand how important that is until it's gone. It's like your mom never lets you out of the house. Then you grow up and you see she did for a reason. That's what I miss."

Is Davis talking about ... discipline? From his former coach? There is a lot of contrary to go around Arkansas at the moment. Petrino built a top-10 program that is currently leaderless. His brother, offensive coordinator Paul, would be a perfect replacement except that his last name is Petrino.

"The football program wasn't broken," Paul said. "The way that we do things, the way that we practice, the way that it's structured, that's how you do it. That's the best way to do anything in the country. That's why I think it helps to keep all the assistants here and we keep doing things the exact same way."

You've probably seen the other names from outside the program. Steve Mariucci apparently has expressed interest. Long went out of his way to say he hadn't spoken to Pete Carroll. Former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer is available and knows the conference. Former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden spoke to Long before Petrino was hired.

Garrick McGee left Arkansas after 2011 to take his first head coaching job at Alabama-Birmingham. Would he or Arkansas State's Gus Malzahn leave their current positions before ever coaching a game at their new school?

Davis favors his position coach Tim Horton, an Arkansas grad. Interim coach Taver Johnson only arrived on campus in December from Ohio State. But no matter what happens this team, it remains extremely talented and fragile.

A program that has never won a crystal football resembles one at the moment. Drop it and more dreams than glass would shatter.

"You described it perfectly," said Davis' mother Regina Gardner-Morgan, who attended Saturday's game. "Bobby Petrino has done so many things to work up to this point. He has that team just right and they're just about to go over the hill. Then something like this happens."

If a big-name permanent replacement comes in, there is a risk that all the chemistry between the current players and coaches could be wrecked like that motorcycle on Highway 16. For the moment, they have sole ownership of the program.

"We can do this thing with what we've got in the room," quarterback Tyler Wilson said.

Twenty-five miles away among the back roads of Madison County, Nazarali remains willing to tell anyone who comes in about how his business has benefitted from the Bobby Boost.

"Yesterday another guy was here and said he was going to go take picture of that brush pile and put it in his office," Nazarali said.

But why? It's the same reason why an Iranian country store proprietor in rural Arkansas cares just as much as the 45,000 who watched Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

"Hog fan," he said flatly. "Yeah, you gotta be."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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