Bobby Petrino wins football games. That has been established. He was 41-9 during four seasons at Louisville from 2003-06. He has led Arkansas to a 21-5 record the past two seasons, including a Cotton Bowl win in January over Kansas State.
Petrino has that certain “it” all the winning coaches have. You can’t define it, necessarily, but it also can’t be denied.
If it weren’t for that gaudy win-loss record, Petrino would probably have been out the door hours after some of the details came out concerning a scandal involving a Harley-Davidson, a young female rider, an attempted cover-up and an embarrassing admission. Jackie Collins should be so lucky to have as much sordidness in one of her novels.
But not even winning could save Petrino, who will not return for a fifth season at Arkansas in 2012. He was fired Tuesday evening by a courageous athletic director, Jeff Long, who determined there are more important things than wins and losses even at the highest level of college athletics. And it doesn’t get higher than SEC football.
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Long stood before the media in Fayetteville and laid out the reasons for his decision. He was emotional at times, but sturdy as a rock. And if there’s a single Arkansas football fan who takes him to task for this decision, that fan should be ashamed.
The 51-year-old Petrino crashed his Harley on April 1, only this was no joke. At first, he reported to Long that he was alone at the time of the accident on a rural road.
But then word got out that a young woman whom Petrino had just hired for his football staff was on the back of his bike. Petrino, who suffered injuries, admitted to having had an “inappropriate relationship” with the woman, 25-year-old Jessica Dorrell, who was unharmed. Long said during his news conference that the relationship lasted for "a significant amount of time."
Dorrell is engaged to Josh Morgan, the director of swimming and diving operations at Arkansas. They were scheduled to be married in June. Petrino, who by the way is married and has four children, was at first suspended without pay while Long, another unfortunate bystander in this wretched tale, attempted to sort things out while a fan base clamored for a decision.
Long, I thought, would do everything he could to maintain Petrino as Arkansas’ football coach because of the success he’s had in Fayetteville. For years, the Razorbacks created barely a ripple in the raging waters that is SEC football. But with Petrino on the sideline, Arkansas mattered. The Hogs aren’t Alabama or LSU yet, but they were getting there.
Losing Petrino could be a devastating blow to the football program. He is, after all, a winning coach.
But perhaps not such a winning person.
In 2007, he left the Atlanta Falcons after 13 games (they play 16 in the NFL) to take the Arkansas job. To explain his sudden departure, he left notes for the Falcons players on the doors of their lockers. Atlanta was 3-10 at the time and Petrino decided to cut and run.
None of that mattered to Arkansas fans hungry for success. Many showed their support for Petrino in the social media. Around 200 reportedly showed up on campus Monday night to rally behind their beleaguered coach.
There are people who believe forgiveness is always the best option, and they are genuine. It wouldn’t matter to them whether Petrino was a successful football coach or a sportswriter.
And there are some who believe this kind of indiscretion always calls for the harshest penalty. They, too, are steadfast in their beliefs. The majority of people, I suspect, are torn. I believe Long is in the large group that weighs the pros and cons first before coming to a conclusion.
I hope I’m in that group, too. I do not believe forgiveness is always the best remedy, nor do I think knee-jerk displays of forceful discipline are necessarily the answer.
Petrino made big mistakes. The first was to lie to his superiors.
Actually, that wasn’t the first.
The first was to get involved with Dorrell, who played volleyball at Arkansas and was a fundraiser for the Arkansas Foundation before Petrino hired her to organize the recruiting process for the football team, including initial eligibility for each incoming player.
By getting involved with a woman not half his age, Petrino brought everyone who works inside the department into his den of deceit. There would never have been “business as usual” as long as Petrino was around.
The power of winning in college football, of course, is strong. Stronger, perhaps, than anything else, including integrity. Which is why I’m surprised, pleasantly, that Petrino is out as Arkansas’ football coach.
Long, of course, understands the repercussions of his decision and how it affects so many people. But it was the actions of Petrino that caused this incredible jolt to the Arkansas football program. Long took a substantial amount of time to gather facts and consider options. I thought he came across as a terrific leader Tuesday during a difficult time.
Essentially, it came down to a choice.
Winning football games, which Petrino did with regularity, was on one side of this debate. Virtue and honor stood on the other and I didn’t think they stood a chance.
But a strong athletic director made a decisive move and while it’s painful for everyone associated with Arkansas football, it’s the right call.