Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long promised a deliberate review of suspended football coach Bobby Petrino. That’s the only promise he could make late Thursday night while fielding a firing line of questions at the kind of news conference no athletic director relishes.
Now Long has one hellacious decision to make.
In short, can Petrino still be effective going forward as Arkansas’ head football coach? Can he be trusted? Has he violated his contract and/or university policy to a point where he’s no longer viable as a leader? Is this a stain on the university that won’t easily go away as long as Petrino is still coaching the Hogs?
A ton of questions hover out there, but you can rest assured that Long is turning over every stone as we speak to see whether there are any other details concerning Petrino’s motorcycle crash and his relationship with newly hired football staffer Jessica Dorrell that would embarrass the university.
It’s easy for those outside the borders of Arkansas to get all sanctimonious and say Long should send Petrino packing immediately.
After all, Petrino lied to Long and made the university look foolish in the process. That’s not to mention the circumstances surrounding Dorrell’s hiring in the football office and the circumstances surrounding the relationship between Petrino and Dorrell.
Petrino acknowledged in his statement late Thursday night that he had a “previous inappropriate relationship” and was trying to keep that from going public to protect his family.
But not protecting himself?
Either way, things get even stickier when you consider that Dorrell was engaged to be married in June to another member of the Arkansas athletic department -- director of swimming and diving operations Josh Morgan.
Honestly, if Petrino had gone 9-3 last season and 8-4 the year before, he’d probably already be gone.
But he didn’t. He’s a proven winner and has elevated Arkansas’ program to a position of national prominence that the Hogs haven’t enjoyed in 30 years.
Put yourself in Long’s place. The opening presented itself back in 2007 to hire a coach the caliber of Petrino. We’re talking an NFL head coach with one of the best offensive minds in the game.
Granted, the way he left the Atlanta Falcons before the season ended, and not even telling his players personally, raised more than a few red flags, especially given Petrino’s role in the clandestine interview with Auburn officials back in 2003 when Petrino’s former boss, Tommy Tuberville, was still coaching the Tigers.
But Petrino came in and did exactly what Long hired him to do. He made Arkansas a national player in four years, taking the Hogs to their first BCS bowl in his third season and winning 11 games last season and finishing No. 5 in the final polls.
All the while, financial contributions have come pouring in at a dizzying rate, so much so that Arkansas is building a new $40.3 million football center that’s scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2013.
Let’s face it. Winning cures a lot of ills, especially in the realm of SEC football. Dumping Petrino now, especially with such high expectations for the 2012 season, would be a bold move for Long, not to mention an excruciatingly difficult one. So Arkansas might merely punish Petrino internally or dock his pay.
There’s also a chance Arkansas could redo Petrino's contract. After former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl’s admission that he lied to the NCAA, Tennessee terminated his contract (without announcing it publicly) and he coached that season for much less money. He wound up being fired at season’s end.
The difference with Pearl, who was also hugely successful, was that he was embroiled in NCAA issues. That’s not the case with Petrino. At the end of the day, something says Long is enough of a professional that he will be able to get over the fact that Petrino lied to him. Whatever relationship Petrino had with Dorrell, although certainly embarrassing, is also something that Long may be able to get past.
The deal-breaker, though, may end up being the how, when, where and why surrounding Dorrell’s hiring in the football office and whether a “previous inappropriate relationship” with Petrino were what got her that job.
If so, that’s something that might trump even winning.