Published April 11, 2012 - 8:20am
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It would be inaccurate to look at Bobby Petrino’s firing as a case of “ethics and morals” trumping wins. Judging by his Tuesday evening press conference, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long was not engaged in moral grandstanding or some Roger Goodell-like effort to show everyone that he was in charge. Long made a calculated long-term decision that he believed was in the best interest of the Razorbacks football program. We won’t know if he’s right for at least a year, maybe longer.
Obviously, the reaction of many Arkansas fans will be concern for the immediate future. A team that finished 11-2 last year with a returning starting quarterback and dates against division rivals Alabama and LSU at home in 2012 are signals to many Razorback supporters that Long should have overlooked Petrino’s actions. But Alabama and LSU are perennial powers. Even with Petrino’s recent success, Arkansas remains at a competitive disadvantage in the SEC West because of its relative lack of in-state talent. Recruiting matters at every SEC school, but it’s at a premium in Fayetteville, and this is where Petrino’s misconduct threatened to do serious harm to the football product down the line.
The last thing Arkansas can afford to be is a national punchline. And the longer Jeff Long kept Bobby Petrino around, the more laughter there would be. Long admitted it was the “negative publicity” of Petrino’s motorcycle accident—and the “inappropriate relationship” with Jessica Dorrell that it unraveled—that proved the “key factor” in Long’s decision to fire Petrino for cause. As I noted last week, what the media calls the “morals clause” in Petrino’s contract is really a “bad publicity” clause.
But this wasn’t just about some today’s headlines. It was about Arkansas’ ability to remain competitive in recruiting with Alabama, LSU and the rest of the SEC West. We all know that negative recruiting is a big part of the game. Anything that publicly damages a coach’s reputation is fair game. (Heck, even rumors of things you can’t prove are “fair” game.) Moreover, once you’re in the media’s crosshairs, their tendency is to keep digging until they find even more stuff to embarrass or destroy you with. Jeff Long has been an athletic director long enough to understand this.
Let’s also remember that it was Petrino, not Long or the media, who made his “inappropriate relationship” a football matter when he hired Jessica Dorrell as a direct report on his staff. Petrino could have just paid Dorrell off, as Long claims he did, or found her work through a friendly booster outside the university. Instead, Petrino did the most reckless thing possible—he used his influence to hire Dorrell over 148 other applicants where only two other finalists received an interview. And let’s not forget Dorrell’s fiancee was also an employee of the Arkansas athletic department.
Recklessness is really the key word here. All successful coaches are risk-takers. Many of them are quirky. You can overlook quirky if they win enough. Les Miles is quirky. But Bobby Petrino wasn’t caught eating grass. He abused his good relationship with the athletic director to sneak his apparent mistress onto the state payroll. Even in Arkansas, there are standards.
I would also suggest to Petrino’s Arkansas supporters that perhaps it’s better this happened now. Bobby Petrino’s tenure at Arkansas was going to explode at some point. His character and history never suggested a guy who was going to build a stable, long-term championship program. He’s ultimately a coaching thrill-seeker—the 99-cent store Urban Meyer, if you will. If he was reckless enough to act as he did with Dorrell, just imagine what other stunts he would have pulled—or may have pulled—if he hadn’t crashed his motorcycle. At least this explosion didn’t result in NCAA sanctions (like Ohio State) or criminal investigations (like Penn State). Jeff Long just needs to find another football coach.