IRVING, Texas — In a season full of chaos and turmoil, controversy and change, one place remains a refuge from the shattering noise for Arkansas interim coach Reggie Herring and his players.
“When you go to work on that field, you have one focus, and that’s football,” Herring said at Sunday’s Cotton Bowl press conference. “The stock market could crash. Who knows? Maybe Osama Bin Laden might ride by on a horse, and you wouldn’t know.”
Herring has cracked jokes with the media this week and kept the mood light with his players. He’s had to. After former Razorbacks head coach Houston Nutt resigned Nov. 26 to take over at Mississippi, Herring, the team’s defensive coordinator, was called on to bandage the players’ wounded psyche in time to face Missouri in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Herring has remained energetic, but his job hasn’t been easy. He had little time to prepare for his duties as interim coach after Nutt left then two weeks later, embattled Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino was hired to take over the program.
On the field, All-America running back Darren McFadden has been the center of recent controversy. Arkansas officials are looking into whether an agent bought McFadden a Cadillac Escalade, an NCAA violation that, if found to be true, would make him ineligible to play on Tuesday.
All this while a pink eye epidemic has run rampant through the Razorbacks’ locker room over the past month.
Nevertheless, Herring remained poised, passionate and overwhelmingly optimistic as he sat next to Missouri coach Gary Pinkel on Sunday morning and spoke to a room full of reporters.
“We’re in a transition stage,” he said, his voice hoarse and choppy from yelling during practice. “But the one thing we have at the University of Arkansas is that we’ve got great coaches, great kids and a great support staff. That’s why this transition has been extremely easy for me.”
Though Petrino will take over on Jan. 2, he has stayed away from the team as it prepares to play Missouri. That distance has allowed Herring to keep his players loose while still maintaining the strict work ethic that helped Nutt lead the team to an 8-4 record and a win over then-No. 1 Louisiana State in the regular-season finale.
“He’s done a fantastic job of keeping us focused and keeping us where we need to be,” quarterback Casey Dick said. “Just having fun is a big deal to him. When you’re having fun everything takes care of everything else.”
Herring is in his 25th season as a collegiate coach and his 27th overall. Before coming to Arkansas in 2005 he made stops as an assistant at Oklahoma State, Auburn, Texas Christian, Clemson, the NFL’s Houston Texans and North Carolina State.
Herring has been a part of many bowl games throughout his career, including the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl. He’s used to the stress that comes with preparing a team for a high-stakes game.
“That’s why this hairdo is pretty standard,” Herring said, pointing to his bald head.
Herring will pace the sidelines as a head coach for the first time on Tuesday, but Arkansas players said there hasn’t been much difference in the way he interacts with them during practice. He’s still loud, he’s still passionate and he still knows how to motivate. Only now he has an offense to worry about too.
“We’re doing exactly the same thing,” offensive tackle Robert Felton said. “The only difference is sometimes I see coach Herring over with us, and that’s weird because normally he’s over with the defense. Now he’s going back and forth, and he’s doing a great job.”
Several players lobbied to make Herring’s new role permanent, but after Petrino was hired on Dec. 11, Herring’s first game as Arkansas’ head coach will also be his last. Several reports have linked Herring to joining Texas A&M’s staff after the Cotton Bowl, but he has denied those claims.
Right now his only focus is on beating the Tigers.
“Make no mistake about it, this is an important game,” Herring said, “regardless of whether this is the last game for me as a Razorback. These players are focused. They have a purpose, and they’re here to win this game.”
Herring’s dedication has his players believing.
“Coach Herring has made sure we are focused on the game,” free safety Kevin Woods said. “We just worry about playing football. We have had some of the best practices of the year this bowl season. I don’t think we’ve had a bad practice yet.”
Practice. A haven safeguarded by the one man who refuses to let his team be distracted.
“I have so much respect for these players,” Herring said. “That’s why I’m here instead of out looking for a job. This game is about these players, and that’s all I care about.”