You knew it was coming somewhere on the list. The top story in the SEC in 2012 was the scandal that shook the Arkansas athletics department and ended a rising star's promising coaching career in the SEC
It was shortly before 11 a.m. on April 2 that we picked up on a seemingly minor item that looked like little more than an amusing way to pass the offseason: Bobby Petrino had been injured but not too seriously when his motorcycle crashed in Arkansas. The upshot?
Details have been dribbling out since, but fortunately, it sounds like the coach is banged up but not in a life-threatening way.
If that were only the half of it.
Within a little more than eight days, Bobby Petrino would be fired for an ever-growing series of lies and colossal mistakes that grew more astounding with each revelation. His career options would dwindle so far that when he finally landed another job, it was at a Sun Belt school. And non-Arkansas fans who had always regarded Petrino as a man of low moral standing somehow found themselves liking the man even less as time went by.
For three days, the lie that Petrino had been alone on the motorcycle -- a detail that seemed so insignificant that we didn't even note it the initial post -- held. Once it unraveled, bringing with it the first mention of Jessica Dorrell that didn't involve volleyball, everything quickly became unwound. Within hours, Petrino was placed on paid administrative leave.
And a few days after that came the bombshell that was hard to fit into the same headline: Petrino had given Dorrell $20,000 at some point -- though not from state funds, we were assured -- and was being fired for reasons that needed no real explanation. Less than five months before football season, Arkansas was without a head coach.
That's when the names started flying, with everyone from Steve Mariucci to Phillip Fulmer being floated as potential candidates. The final choice was not a name that anyone had given much thought to: John L. Smith, a choice that was both praised and questioned, sometimes for similar reasons.
Of course, no one really saw the debacle that would eventually unfold: In the second week of the season, Arkansas would lose to Louisiana-Monroe in overtime, and the entire season would unwind soon after that. The Razorbacks would end up 4-8, with their only conference wins coming against terrible Kentucky and Auburn squads. A team that came out of 2011 as a potential dark horse in the SEC West and the national title race instead became a punchline. Smith was gone.
Then, things got strange. Les Miles was reportedly offered the Arkansas job. Of course, he stayed in Baton Rouge. Arkansas eventually landed Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, who was most notable for having no discernible connection to Arkansas, the SEC or anything else vaguely connected with the Razorbacks' head coaching position.
As predicted, Bobby Petrino had a more difficult time finding his next step -- but he eventually did, in Western Kentucky. Where he said he would explain to the parents of recruits that the scandal "will make me understand their son better." Because, really, what parent hasn't worried that the head football coach would not share their son's experience of having gotten his mistress a better job and then attempted to cover it up after a motorcycle accident?
From imploding a promising coaching career to capsizing a program on the rise to leading to one of the more unlikely hires in the SEC in recent years -- the eight-month saga touched off by an ill-fated motorcycle ride might find some argument as the most important thing that happened in the SEC in 2012, but it is unquestionably the most bizarre thing to happen in the conference for quite some time. And the repercussions, for Petrino and the program he left behind, will likely be felt for several years.