FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — As athletic director Jeff Long walked out of the room after telling Arkansas’ players that Bobby Petrino had been fired Thursday evening, a void in leadership had already formed.
Without Petrino’s heavy hand and detailed plans to guide the way, a few players stood up to leave the Broyles Athletic Center — thinking the meeting was finished. There was no yelling, only the rumbling of under-the-breath comments in an otherwise silent room as the enormity of the athletic director’s announcement settled in.
That was the moment when Tyler Wilson and Tenarius “Tank” Wright filled that void at Arkansas. The pair of rising seniors had too much invested with four years of endless and mind-numbing work to let their teammates slip away that easily — literally and figuratively.
There was no disrespect, no interrupting of Long’s announcement. There were only two of the most respected and longest-tenured Razorbacks left standing, taking the reins of an environment that felt like it was spiraling out of control.
“I just stood up and told everybody to sit back down and delivered a message that we have to stay here and stick together,” Wright said. “And be one family with the coaches that we do have right now with (assistant head coach) Taver Johnson being the director at head coach right now.”
Wright and Wilson had the attention of the room. They had both earned that much.
Wright had done so through his years of production for the Razorbacks, most notably his game-ending sack in a double-overtime win at Mississippi State as a sophomore in 2010. He had also done so through sacrifice, passing up higher sack numbers by embracing a rotating defensive line system aimed at keeping players fresh.
He had sacrificed once again this spring, even before Petrino’s fateful motorcycle crash on April 1, the accident that eventually led to his downfall. With Arkansas facing a numbers crunch at linebacker, it was Wright who, when asked by coaches, willingly made the move back to his high school position, middle linebacker.
The move made perfect sense, both because of Wright’s talent and because it was logical for him to fill the leadership hole left by the departed Jerry Franklin, who had led the Razorbacks in tackles for four straight seasons.
What also made sense was that Wilson was the one teaming with Wright to gain control and speak to teammates following Long’s announcement.
It was Wilson who had arguably sacrificed more than anyone else during his time at Arkansas, sitting behind the laser-armed Ryan Mallett for two seasons while passing records fell like dominoes. It wasn’t how the Greenwood, Ark., product envisioned his collegiate career when he signed with his beloved Razorbacks, but he never wavered and he didn’t transfer when others might have.
Even before he was chosen the starter last summer, Wilson took control. He led offseason workouts, organized throwing sessions with the wide receivers and was made a team captain before he had even been anointed the starting quarterback by Petrino.
His teammates knew what to expect, and Wilson didn’t disappoint last season. He earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors and showed what leadership was time and again while lifting himself off the turf after a youthful and inexperienced Arkansas offensive line allowed one crushing hit after another.
Wilson sacrificed personal gratification once again this past winter, bypassing the NFL draft and returning for one final go-around with the Razorbacks. It wasn’t an easy decision, because working with Petrino on a daily basis wasn’t the most enjoyable experience for a quarterback.
But it was experience filled with knowledge that Wilson knew would benefit him in the future.
If anyone had earned the right to talk following Long, it was Wilson.
“I felt afterward it was important I step up and say a few words,” Wilson said. “Not give a pep talk because that’s not what it’s about, but (to) make sure we’re all on the same page and assure the guys that we’re going to be a successful football team and our goals are still in place.”
Nobody — not Wilson, Wright or any of the coaches — is sure what’s next for Arkansas.
The future of the Razorbacks lies within the decision-making powers of Long. That’s the same Long who appeared to have a “home-run hire” when Petrino called and was ready to leave the Atlanta Falcons after just 13 games in 2007.
Petrino’s tenure will be remembered for some of the highest highs (the school’s first BCS bowl game, 21-5 in his last two seasons) and lowest of lows (his sudden and stunning firing that was brought on by a mistress, her hiring to the football staff, a $20,000 gift and lies to Long) in the history of Arkansas football.
More than anything, however, it could be defined by a pair of fifth-year seniors who want nothing more than to complete the mission Petrino made seem like a realistic goal.
That goal is a national championship. And whoever takes over this group of Razorbacks in the next weeks or months will inherit a group that believes it’s a very real possibility.
“(Petrino) instilled the ideas and philosophies,” Wilson said, “and if we can continue those we’re going to be a heck of a football team.”