Commentary

Scandal another ugly exit for Petrino

Originally Published: April 5, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

If only Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long had left a laminated pink slip taped to football coach Bobby Petrino's office door.

Or on his mangled Harley-Davidson.

Petrino, who guided the Razorbacks to a 21-5 record the past two seasons and their first BCS bowl game, was fired Tuesday after Long realized what most of us already knew about his former football coach -- he bends the truth like Bubba Watson bends golf shots.

Long informed Petrino of his dismissal via letter -- which has to sit well with the Atlanta Falcons -- and he was fired with cause, meaning that Arkansas doesn't intend to pay him anything after he exercised "manipulating and deceiving behavior," Long said at a news conference Tuesday night.

[+] EnlargePetrino
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBobby Petrino's tenure at Arkansas came to an abrupt end Tuesday after he was fired with cause.

Petrino was dumped nine days after he wrecked his motorcycle during a Sunday joy ride on April 1. Petrino made Long the April fool, initially failing to tell his boss that there was a female passenger on the back of his Harley-Davidson. If Petrino's coverup had ended there, he might have survived an embarrassing extramarital affair, at least professionally.

But the woman on the back of Petrino's motorcycle, Jessica Dorrell, was an Arkansas athletics department employee. Until a couple of weeks ago, Dorrell worked as a fundraiser for the Razorbacks, raising money for athletic scholarships and facilities. But then Petrino hired Dorrell, a 25-year-old former Arkansas volleyball player, as his football program's student-athlete development coordinator March 28.

Long said Tuesday night that Dorrell was one of three finalists among 159 candidates for the job. Petrino never revealed he was having an affair with Dorrell, or that he had made a $20,000 gift to her. Long said their relationship had been going on for a "significant period of time."

"I'm disappointed in his lack of judgment," Long said. "I'm disappointed in his failure to tell me the truth about it. Coach Petrino had a number of opportunities to share with me the nature of his relationship."

Dorrell, who graduated from Arkansas in 2008 and worked in the athletics department since 2010, was engaged to marry the Razorbacks' swim director June 9. Talk about a wedding crasher.

Petrino, who is married and has four children, not only misled Long and everyone else about the details of his motorcycle crash, but he also hired his mistress to work in his football program. You know what they say about mixing business with pleasure.

Give Long credit for making a difficult decision. He made the right one, but it's only a correction from an egregious mistake he made four years ago -- hiring Petrino in the first place. Long made the Hogs' bed -- he finally decided to get rid of the fleas Tuesday.

After taking the Easter weekend to review the situation, Long came to the only logical conclusion: He could no longer trust Petrino. He wasn't the first person to reach that conclusion.

From the day the Razorbacks hired Petrino to replace the fired Houston Nutt on Dec. 10, 2007, Long had to fear the marriage would end badly. Long probably made more than a few drive-bys past Petrino's home just to make sure there wasn't a U-haul in the driveway to take the coach to his next stop. Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons with three games to play during the 2007 season, informing his players of his departure with a typed, 78-word statement taped to their lockers. Only the day before, Petrino had told Falcons owner Arthur Blank that he wasn't going anywhere.

In 2003, during his first season as a head coach at Louisville, Petrino secretly met with Auburn officials about replacing his old boss, Tommy Tuberville, as the Tigers' coach. Petrino and Auburn officials initially denied that their meeting at a southern Indiana airport ever took place. But when confronted with flight records that proved the clandestine meeting happened, Petrino eventually admitted it and said "I'm a young coach. I made a mistake."

It's clear that Petrino's actions are either really stupid or grossly arrogant. Did he not believe the details of his crash would be included in an Arkansas State Police incident report? Or did he really believe he had enough power to make sure they weren't included?

During the news conference, Long said he believed Petrino thought he was bigger than Arkansas' football program.

"No one is bigger than the team, the football program or the University of Arkansas," Long said.

The accident left Petrino, 51, with a bloody and bruised face, broken ribs and broken vertebrae in his neck. At this point, those are the least of his injuries. He just threw away a job that paid him $3.6 million annually, and his personal life is in a shambles.

[+] EnlargeJeff Long
AP Photo/April L. BrownJeff Long said Petrino "made the decision to mislead the public, [and it] adversely affected the university and the football program."

Firing Petrino couldn't have been an easy decision, and undoubtedly won't be a popular one with many Razorbacks fans. Arkansas went 11-2 last season, winning 11 games in a season for the first time since 1977 and defeating No. 8 Kansas State 29-16 in the Cotton Bowl. In 2010, the Razorbacks went 10-3 and played in their first BCS bowl game since 1986, losing to Ohio State 31-26 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl (the victory was later vacated by the Buckeyes because of NCAA violations).

With quarterback Tyler Wilson coming back, and star tailback Knile Davis returning from an ankle injury that caused him to miss all of the 2011 season, Arkansas seemed primed for even bigger things in 2012. With defending BCS national champion Alabama having to replace nearly all of its defense, and LSU having to replace its quarterback, the Hogs finally seemed equipped to challenge those two heavyweights in the rugged SEC West.

Instead, the Razorbacks are left picking up the pieces after an embarrassing scandal that cost their head coach his job. Petrino's wrecked hog might have wrecked the Hogs' promising future.

"I know there is disappointment," Long said. "I have disappointment. I expect [Arkansas fans] to be disappointed, but in the end I expect them to rally around the student-athletes."

It isn't clear whether Long will hire a full-time coach or stick with Taver Johnson, who will serve as interim coach through the end of spring practice. Long said he would begin a search for a new coach immediately but wasn't entirely committed to hiring a replacement by the start of the 2012 season.

New Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn and new UAB coach Garrick McGee -- two former Razorbacks offensive coordinators -- have been mentioned as possible candidates to replace Petrino, along with former North Carolina coach Butch Davis, a former Arkansas player. Davis comes with baggage of his own, having been fired from UNC after an NCAA investigation found major infractions. South Florida coach Skip Holtz, the son of former Arkansas and Notre Dame coach and current ESPN analyst Lou Holtz, also has been mentioned among possible candidates.

It certainly wasn't easy, but Long's decision gave ethics and integrity a rare victory over winning in college sports.

Whether Arkansas fans want to admit it or not, Long's decision was the only one he could make.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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