When news of Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle crash took off late last week, we wrote that if the coach lost his job it would be because a) he lied to his bosses, and/or b) he put the University of Arkansas in a position to be sued. It would not be because he had cheated on his wife. Hiring the person he had an inappropriate relationship with would be the much bigger problem, in our view.
The longer AD Jeff Long dug into the situation, the more clear it became that UA didn’t want to can Petrino unless the outlook was just too bleak. Yesterday we wrote that if the coach were axed, it would be “because there’s so much dirt behind the scenes and on the horizon” that the school couldn’t keep him.
Turns out, the lie to his superiors, the hiring of his mistress, and a we-all-just-learned-about-it $20,000 gift from the coach to Jessica Dorrell did indeed go on behind the scenes. Oh, and he hired her over 158 other candidates. And that could open the school up to lawsuits from 159 people including Dorrell herself for sexual harassment.
Also, Long said last night that Petrino’s relationship with the UA employee had lasted for “a significant period of time.” In other words, he’s been lying about that relationship — we assume — for quite a while.
Add it all up and you’ll understand why Petrino was shown the door last night. Despite the fact that he was worth millions to the school.
Now, to any rational person there’s no question Long and the UA administration did the right thing — you can’t have an employee openly lie to you and put the university in jeopardy from a legal standpoint.
“He made the decision, a conscious decision, to mislead the public on Tuesday, and in doing so negatively and adversely affected the reputation of the University of Arkansas and our football program. In short, coach Petrino engaged in a pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior designed to decieve me and members of the athletic staff, both before and after the motorcycle accident…
Coach Petrino abused his authority when over the past few weeks he made a staff decision and personal choices that benefited himself and jeopardized the integrity of the football program.”
Aside from a few saps, there’s not a boss in the world who would have retained Petrino. As ever, it was the lie that got him, the cover-up. As we said Friday, Jim Tressel and Bruce Pearl learned that lesson in 2011. Petrino either doesn’t have ESPN or he didn’t pay attention to those coaches’ sagas. How else could he lie to the press and to his bosses? And how could Long or UA chancellor G. David Gearhart ever trust him again after he’d lied to them?
And let’s be clear to the “we all fib every now and again” crowd, Petrino didn’t lie about who drank the last gulp of coffee in the break room. He lied about a police investigation and a relationship with a subordinate. UA had no choice but to dismiss him.
Unfortunately, the departure of Petrino only raises more questions for a program that had clearly been on the rise. Here are a few:
1. Will Long suffer a backlash?
On Friday, Andy Staples of SI.com warned that Long was in a precarious situation. Having lived in both East Tennessee and Central Ohio, this writer told you that there was considerable backlash against the men who fired Pearl at Tennessee and Tressel at Ohio State despite the fact that those ADs and those schools really had little choice otherwise. (You can find both articles here.)
Anyone who saw the riots at Penn State when Joe Paterno was sacked knows that there will always be a portion of fans who worry only about wins, nothing else. If Vladimir Putin could coach ball, there’d be plenty of folks more than happy for their school to hire him.
So how much trouble is Long in after making this move? As of last night the messageboards were already lighting up with some folks calling for the AD’s head rather than Petrino’s. In the end, will Petrino take Long down with him?
CBSSports.com’s ever-excellent scribe Tony Barnhart clearly believes it’s possible:
“As hard as it was for Long to step up and do the right thing and to show extraordinary leadership, the really hard part is just beginning. In the aftermath of Tuesday’s press conference, Long and Arkansas will be praised for their integrity and deservedly so. But if Long can’t hire another coach as good as Petrino who can keep the program on an upward cycle, he could be gone by the New Year. And that would be a shame.”
Long needs the strong support and backing of UA’s chancellor right now. Last night all he got was a statement from his boss that featured more legalese than “we’re behind ya” comments:
“This is a sad day for the University of Arkansas and Razorback sports. After a thorough review, Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Jeff Long has made his decision. Mr. Petrino’s contract establishes a process by which he may have his termination decision reviewed. Under that process, the review would ultimately come to me for consideration and action. Given my role in the review process as Chancellor, I must decline further comment on today’s announcement.”
Translation: “We’re doing things the buttoned-up way. Petrino’s contract says he can bring his firing to me if he feels it was an unfair decision and I would have to make a ruling supporting him or supporting my AD in that case. So I can’t say anything about it lest it appear that I’m already biased against the coach.”
Long must have known before dismissing Petrino that he would have Gearhart’s backing if push came to shove.
How far that will go with Razorback fans if UA’s program starts to dip is anyone’s guess. But if the Hogs do take a step back, Petrino should get the blame… not Long.
2. How much will this move cost Arkansas financially?
Well, according to the letter that Long sent to Petrino — yep, he fired him with a letter, not in a face-to-face meeting — the school is ditching the coach with cause. Meaning no multimillion dollar buyout. That’s a plus because there could be millions that will need to be coughed up in other directions shortly.
The school could face a sexual harassment suit from Dorrell (more on that later). The school could face a wrongful termination suit from Petrino (more on that later). The school could possibly face lawsuits from some or all of the 158 people passed over when Petrino hired Dorrell for a $50,000+ job in his football department.
The school is also on the hook for a multimillion dollar football complex that’s being built. Will those who’ve committed cash to the project suddenly pull their dollars now that Petrino’s not in charge of things anymore?
Also, bringing in a new coach might not be as easy as one might think. Arkansas was a program on the move and the school has great fan support. There’s money all around and the school’s in the SEC, the launching pad to national championships. At the same time, the school’s in the SEC. As good as Petrino had been, he hadn’t even reached Atlanta from the cutthroat SEC West (which is now adding Texas A&M). He’d had just two years of Top 10 success. That’s it. Prospective coaches won’t confuse Arkansas for Alabama tradition-wise.
Also Petrino’s offensive system allowed him to win without five-star recruits. Any new coach would know that Arkansas is a talent-poor state, so he better have a darn good system of his own. And he would also know that living up to Petrino’s success and popularity would be a difficult challenge.
Someone will jump at the Arkansas job, sure, but they may ask for a bit more than the going rate to take over a program that’s in a real bind at the moment.
3. So who will Arkansas hire?
Many names are already floating around: Butch Davis (would you hire a man who lost his job in a mess to come clean up a mess?), Gus Malzahn (would Arkansas want an unproven head coach from lil’ brother, Arkansas State?) and Charlie Strong (Louisville’s coach is a defense-first guy, just the opposite of Petrino). South Florida’s Skip Holtz has been mentioned. Ditto Mark Hudspeth of Louisiana-Lafayette. Inside the SEC, James Franklin and Dan Mullen are viewed as up-and-comers.
And we’ll throw out Jon Gruden’s name just because someone always throws out Jon Gruden’s name.
But the name most mentioned at this point is that of Garrick McGee. Former Hog quarterback Ryan Mallett was already campaigning for the ex-Razorback offensive coordinator via Twitter last night. “GM only coach Ark should look at if they wanna win now,” he wrote before following up to make it clear he was referring to McGee, not Malzahn.
McGee is in his first spring at UAB. Would he leave that school so quickly?
Are you kidding? For Arkansas? Yes, he’d leave.
But he might not take the gig right now.
4. Will Arkansas hire a new coach after the spring or use an interim for the year?
Many Razorback fans believe this is the year they’ll vault past LSU and Alabama and into the SEC title game. Maybe so. If not, they can blame Petrino.
Currently, Long intends to keep the current staff in place through spring — including Petrino’s brother, Paul, the Hogs’ offensive coordinator. (Tell me that’s not going to be uncomfortable.) Taver Johnson — just hired from Ohio State — will continue to run the team as it completes spring drills.
It is believed Long will then open a search to see who might be available. In late-April, early-May.
In our view, Arkansas would be better off bringing in an interim coach for one season than making a hasty move. Stealing McGee from UAB — if Long chose to do that — would only lead to catcalls from the national press. The AD would have taken the high road with regards to Petrino… and then backdoored another school’s season. (Of course, he also backdoored the NFL’s Falcons’ season when he grabbed Petrino, so he’s not above such a move.)
The Razorback program has had its ups and downs. It should be looking for someone who can bring consistent ups. The longer the vetting process, the better. Imagine if Long could spend the entire fall scouring the country for the right person, the right fit, the right coach?
Long — and Hog fans are gonna scream about this take — must be willing to sacrifice the 2012 season for the long-term stability and good of the program. Perhaps an interim coach can win big with the unit Petrino’s put in place. If the ex-coach’s brother stays on to run the offense, all system’s should still be go for UA this fall.
Better to take the time to find the absolute best fit than to make a rushed decision. The last school to do that in the SEC was Tennessee following Lane Kiffin’s surprising exit (more on him later) and that landed UT Derek Dooley. Dooley hasn’t exactly torn things up as of yet.
5. What’s Petrino’s next move?
The coach released a statement last night apologizing for his behavior:
“As a result of my personal mistakes, we will not get to finish our goal of building a championship program. My sole focus at this point is trying to repair the damage I’ve done to my family. They did not ask for any of this and deserve better. I am committed to being a better husband, father and human being as a result of this and will work each and every day to prove that to my family, friends and others.”
So he’s walking away quietly? Not necessarily. His statement also included this paragraph:
“I’m sure you heard Jeff Long’s reasons for termination. There was a lot of information shared. Given the decision that has been made, this is not the place to debate Jeff’s view of what happened. In the end, I put him in the position of having to sort through my mistakes and that is my fault.”
That suggests Petrino might choose to “debate” Long’s view of what happened somewhere else at some other point. That could mean in a review with Gearhart in which he angles for some type of buyout. Or it could mean in a courtroom if things get contentious enough. We doubt Petrino will sue because it doesn’t appear he has much of a case — he was rightfully terminated — and he surely won’t want to put his family through a court fight.
But it’s possible.
6. What’s up with Dorrell?
Dorrell was a consenting adult in all of this mess, but as Petrino’s subordinate, she will be harder to fire than her boss. Long would not comment on her situation last night. Friends have said that she’s basically gone into hiding after all of this.
Personally, I feel for Dorrell… and for Petrino. They’re human — whether you like him, her, neither or both — and they failed. There’s no one reading this who hasn’t failed at one time or another in terms of their morality. And in case you feel like commenting that their failures are greater than your failures, congratulations, you just failed. “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
Petrino earned his ouster. Dorrell — from what we know — earned one, too. That doesn’t mean they should be taken to the city gates and stoned.
7. Who will give Petrino his next shot?
In his career, the book on Petrino is that — at best — he’s an opportunist. While at Louisville he went behind his AD’s back to try and grab the job of Auburn’s Tommy Tuberville, his former employer. With the Atlanta Falcons, he skipped town midseason leaving goodbye notes for his players and egg on the face of the owner who’d hired him.
But Petrino wins football games. He turns programs around quickly. He can even do it in college football’s toughest division. And he doesn’t need Top 10 recruiting classes to do it.
There will come a time when another AD will step to a podium and introduce a “changed” Petrino who is deserving of a second chance. It’ll happen. Guaranteed. Start the clock.
8. Who will be the next SEC coach to flame out?
The book on Petrino when he was hired was that he was a bad dude. Long and the Razorback faithful looked the other way, defended their coach, and then got burned.
Kiffin — who we mentioned above — was called an out-and-out liar by former employer Al Davis when Tennessee hired him. Davis said he would screw up the UT program. Vol fans called Davis a kook, defended their coach, and then got burned.
Tressel — also mentioned above — had a history of NCAA transgressions while winning national titles at Youngstown State. When John Cooper didn’t beat Michigan enough, Ohio State called Tressel back to Columbus. Buckeye fans defended Tressel even as ooze began to leak out regarding Maurice Clarett and Tyrelle Pryor. They too got burned.
Coaches with bad reputations tend to have bad reputations for a reason. So who in the SEC fits that mold today? How ’bout John Calipari at Kentucky?
We always take a beating from fans of the other SEC schools whenever we point out that UK’s coach has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing by the NCAA. None. Well, today we’ll take a beating from Kentucky fans for pointing out that that school looked the other way regarding Calipari’s reputation, they’ve defended him against all attacks, and — if history repeats itself — they could wind up getting burned at some point down the line.
Now, some Petrino/Arkansas national headlines:
And now for some headlines out of the Natural State: