FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Knile Davis said he had no clue Bobby Petrino’s personal life was about to become public knowledge when the coach crashed his motorcycle on April 1.
But as the minutes, hours and days seem to reveal more and more about the circumstances surrounding their former head coach’s firing on April 10, Davis said it’s become hard to swallow.
"Some days I wake up and I’m like, ‘Is this really happening?’" Davis said. "Sometimes it’s just mind-boggling. Just got to keep going."
Arkansas players and coaches spoke about Petrino’s dismissal, which was the result of his extra-marital affair with 25-year-old employee Jessica Dorrell, and what happens next after Friday’s scrimmage in Razorback Stadium. It was the first time they were available for interviews since Petrino’s firing, providing some perspective from behind the practice doors the past two weeks.
Davis said, personally, he has run the gamut of emotions, saying he was surprised, shocked and hurt as details emerged. He admitted "it was all happening so fast. We were just like, ‘Wow, our leader is going down and there was nothing we could do about it." But he also showed some sympathy for Petrino, who led the Razorbacks to a 34-17 record in his four seasons with the program.
"At the end of the day he’s a human being," Davis said. "We all make mistakes. I kind of felt bad for him because everywhere I looked it was him. I knew him differently. He was a good coach. He told us the right thing to do. He was a good person."
The aftermath has been even harder for Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who rejoined his brother’s staff after a two-year stint at Illinois in Dec. 2011. The plan when he came back to Fayetteville was to stay in the area for four years so his kids could go to one high school.
But that’s in jeopardy now after his brother’s mistakes. Petrino said the past several days have been excruciating for his family, but credited them for their strength through the ordeal.
"It’s hard. You know, it’s hard," Petrino said. "I’m proud of them. They went to school every day and they never missed a day of school. They had their heads up high. They carried their chest high and I’m proud of them. They’ve been really good."
Petrino knew tough questions were coming during his time with the media and admitted to being a little nervous with a crowd surrounding him.
But Petrino — like other coaches and players in the room Friday night — stressed he had no idea what was happening in his brother’s personal life.
"I did not know anything about it," Petrino said. "Bobby’s my brother. I love him. I will always love him. He made a mistake. He’s paying deeply for it, and I’m putting all my focus right now into doing the very best I can in coaching Tyler Wilson, and coaching this whole football team, and helping my family get through it too."
Long has not said whether he will select an interim coach currently on staff for the 2012 season or hire someone this spring. Assistant head coach Taver Johnson has been placed in charge of the team through spring practice, which concluded with the Red-White Game on April 21.
Johnson, Petrino and defensive coordinator Paul Haynes were all asked if they had lobbied for the position Friday. None openly campaigned, but Petrino did say "one of the smartest things" Long could do is keep the current staff in place."
Haynes said all of the assistants believe that is the best move for the players in 2012.
"When they know who is going to be here, when they know what is going to go on, I think it’s some stability for them that they can truly move forward," said Haynes, who, along with Johnson, worked under Ohio State interim coach Luke Fickell after Jim Tressel was fired. "Until that point, it’s kind of up in the air. So I think once our leadership makes the decision, our kids will sit there and rally behind it and we will go. ...
"You pray for (Bobby Petrino). You pray for his family. But the ultimate goal is we have to make sure we’re here for these kids."
Team leaders like Davis and quarterback Tyler Wilson said they have met with Long to discuss the immediate future. They agree that keeping the current staff intact is best for continuity.
Wilson said he wouldn’t publicly back one coach for the interim position. Davis did, however, saying he’d like to see position coach Tim Horton — an Arkansas alum — get the job if Long chooses.
No matter what, Wilson said Arkansas’ goal for next season won’t change: winning a championship.
"It’s frustrating," Wilson said of Petrino’s firing, which has made that goal more difficult.
"You’re knocking on the door. It’s part of the reason I decided to come back was because I felt like our foundation and everything here was very firm. Top program in the country. Obviously, this is a setback and frustrating. But I think we’re able to move on and press on without him."
Paul Petrino has been in contact with his brother, saying the conversations have been "more ‘Love ya,’ and ‘Thinking about ya’" as the Razorbacks try to pick up the pieces without him.
Davis said he texted Petrino before the coach was fired, too, letting him know he was praying for him and the team was in good hands. But he hasn’t spoken with Petrino since he was fired.
Wilson said he hasn’t spoken to his former coach, either. When asked if he’d like to, Wilson said, "I’m not sure what I’d have to say."
"That was a personal issue," Wilson said. "A lot of stuff here in football between the staff and the coaches, it’s strictly on the football field. That’s the way it’s always been. That’s why I’ve been the way I’ve been in my personal life.
"So I don’t have really anything to say."