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Kragthorpe: Bobby Petrino's curse hits teams in Utah, beyond

Published October 21, 2013 11:31 pm

College football • Coach's firing at Arkansas triggers chain reaction that is felt to this day
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Weber State is enduring a disastrous football season. Two unusual plays ultimately might prevent Wisconsin from competing for a national championship. Utah State lost its star quarterback. Arkansas is crumbling. Fort Lewis College is still struggling.

The obvious cause of all this misfortune? The Curse of Bobby Petrino.

In the long history of college athletics in Utah and points beyond, no incident ever did more damage than Petrino's motorcycle wreck of April 1, 2012. The sequence of events began when the investigation of the accident led to Arkansas' firing of Petrino, a former Weber State and Utah State assistant coach, for reasons having nothing to do with his driving skills. He lost his job — and landed another, making him the one person in this tale who's mostly exempt from his own curse.

That's how it always works, right?

The side effects have reverberated throughout other programs and claimed a bunch of victims, some to greater degrees than others. No school touched by the effects of Petrino's actions has escaped cosmic punishment, that's for sure.

Weber State's role in all of this was hiring John L. Smith four months earlier, only to have him return to Arkansas as interim coach. WSU athletic director Jerry Bovee never expressed bitterness about that move, and suggested in August that "karma" — a word that runs through this story — was working in his favor as a result, with the discovery of Jody Sears as Smith's replacement.

Of course, this was before the Wildcats (1-7) launched their current seven-game losing streak, being outscored 336-57. Weber State showed progress in Saturday's 34-16 loss to powerful Montana State. Yet there's a disconnect between the kind of program Ron McBride thought he was leaving to his successor in November 2011 and the reality in Ogden, with issues probably not limited to Bovee's choosing Smith over McBride's personal pick, Don Eck.

The Wildcats' personnel turnover and injuries have resulted in 26 freshmen/redshirt freshmen playing this season, while Bovee and McBride overscheduled by booking Utah, Utah State and FCS power McNeese State.

"I thought we left a good football team there," McBride said. "Just a lot of circumstances changed. … If I thought it would be the way it turned out to be, I'd never have allowed them to schedule those games."

At Arkansas, following Smith's interim season, the school hired Bret Bielema from Wisconsin. Bielema's move created a vacancy that Gary Andersen filled by leaving Utah State after a magical turnaround. The Aggies (4-4) remain in good position to salvage coach Matt Wells' first season, but they'll always wonder what would happened if not for Chuckie Keeton's knee injury.

Andersen is thriving with the No. 22 Badgers (5-2), contending for a BCS bowl. Yet a couple of what-ifs are becoming bigger as their season progresses. Wisconsin lost 32-30 at Arizona State, where an officiating mixup prevented the Badgers from trying a game-winning field goal. Two weeks later, they gave up a 40-yard touchdown pass with one second left before halftime of an eventual 31-24 loss at Ohio State.

Then there's Jen Bielema. Angry about some Wisconsin fans' criticism of her husband's departure, she responded to the Badgers' misfortune at ASU by tweeting "#karma." Uh, bad idea. Arkansas blew a big lead against Rutgers the next week, starting a five-game skid that includes losses to South Carolina and Alabama the last two weeks by a combined 104-7.

Smith, who surfaced at Fort Lewis in southwestern Colorado, stands 2-5 with three recent defeats totaling 128-19. That's forgivable, considering he took over an 0-10 team, but not much fun. As only he could describe it, Smith told the Durango Herald that a delay-of-game penalty would have been preferable to some of the Skyhawks' offensive plays in Saturday's 42-0 loss to Colorado Mesa.

Meanwhile, Petrino is coaching at Western Kentucky, where his 4-3 record includes a win over Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are only 1-2 in the Sun Belt Conference, but are likely to earn a bowl bid. That makes them the one team from this list that's exceeding expectations, naturally. —

The Petrino Effect

Arkansas fired football coach Bobby Petrino, pictured, in April 2012. Here's how that move affected other programs:

Weber State • John L. Smith becomes Arkansas' interim coach; defensive coordinator Jody Sears is promoted.

Wisconsin • After the 2012 season, Bret Bielema becomes Arkansas' coach.

Utah State • Gary Andersen replaces Bielema at Wisconsin; offensive coordinator Matt Wells is promoted.