At first, there was confusion, then anger, followed by a sense of abandonment.
But as Arkansas’ players continue to push through the sudden ouster of their head coach, Bobby Petrino, they say there’s a solidarity on this team that will endure.
“There was a lot of hurt, because we had come so far and then to have it crash in a week was shocking,” Arkansas junior tailback Knile Davis, one of the Hogs’ unquestioned leaders, told ESPN.com.
“But, really, after they made the decision to let him go, the morale of the team got better. We knew what we were facing then, and the way we look at it is that we still have each other. It’s the same team. We’re just going to have a different leader.”
Davis said the leadership on the team during all the turmoil has been unlike anything he has seen. What’s more, that leadership has grown.
When Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long met with the players early Tuesday evening to inform them that he was firing Petrino, Davis said it was understandably a tense situation.
“There were a lot of mad guys, and you heard the kind of things you don’t want to hear,” he said.
That message: Nothing changes.
“We can use this as an opportunity or an excuse,” said Wilson, recounting what he told his teammates in that emotional meeting.
“It’s important that we come together as a football team, and maybe it makes us an even better football team. I think it’s unified us in a lot of ways, and we’ll be stronger for having gone through this.
“The best thing is that all of our goals are still intact.”
Both Davis and Wilson have met with Long and expressed their strong desire that this coaching staff remains intact and that someone is promoted to be interim head coach for the 2012 season.
“I think that’s extremely important, at least for this season,” Wilson said. “I don’t mind saying that I’m the player I am and considered one of the elite players in the country because of this coaching staff, because of this offense and because of my knowledge of this offense.”
Wilson said he received some positive feedback in his meeting that Arkansas’ administration might go that way this season, that they might not bring in another head coach, who would in turn bring in his own staff.
“But I also understand that it’s the athletic director’s decision and that it’s his job who he’s hiring and firing,” Wilson said. “It’s only my opinion, but it’s his job. I respect his opinion, but I do think my judgment and two cents worth will have some pull. At the end of the day, he’s going to do what’s best for the university, and I trust him.”
Davis’ concern with a new head coach would be having to learn a whole new system over the summer and during camp. He also hates the idea of breaking up the chemistry the players have developed with this staff.
“I talked to Jeff Long, and he told me he doesn’t know what he’s going to do,” Davis said. “He’s searching for a head coach, but I guess it depends on who he could get. I just think we’re better off sticking with what we have. I’m not saying we couldn’t learn a new system in camp. It’s still football, but it would be difficult.”
Neither Wilson nor Davis said he had talked to Petrino since his firing was announced.
Davis said he was saddened to see it end in such embarrassing fashion for his head coach, but conceded that Petrino brought it on himself.
“It was unnecessary and could have been avoided, but he is a human being,” Davis said. “We all make mistakes. He made his, and now he’s paying the consequences. It just got to the point where there was nothing Jeff Long or anybody else could do [to save Petrino].”
Wilson’s message to Hog fans is to keep those expectations right where they’ve always been. Arkansas, which finished No. 5 in the final polls last season, was expected to open the 2012 season in the top 10 nationally.
The Hogs get both Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville next season at Razorback Stadium.
“We need every bit of their support, and I can promise them that I’m stepping up my leadership to the point where I’ll be a coach on the field,” Wilson said. “I want all the fans to know that we’re going to do everything we can to keep this together, and they should still have great expectations for the season.
“I can promise you that we do.”
Davis, who has been held out of contact this spring after missing last season with a fractured ankle, said nobody has missed a beat on the practice field.
If anything, he said the intensity has only been ratcheted up since the team learned of Petrino’s firing.
“We’ve been looking really good in practice and, I think, can be even better than we were last year,” Davis said. “We’re sticking to the plan and sticking to our goals. No one is leaving. No one is transferring, and no one is going in the [NFL] supplemental draft.
“We’re going to stick together and fight.”