As I write this on a Monday morning, an entire state sits on pins and needles awaiting more details on the condition of University of Arkansas head football coach Bobby Petrino.
I’ve decided to offer some unsolicited advice to the university.
The motorcycle accident that injured Petrino occurred early Sunday evening at about 6:45 p.m.
Arkansas media began reporting on the incident early Monday morning with the first official statement coming not from the University of Arkansas but from Bill Sadler, the long-serving and highly capable spokesman for the Arkansas State Police.
As television stations in Little Rock rushed crews to Fayetteville, the most solid information by 9 a.m. came from ESPN, which was quoting “a source close to Petrino” as having told ESPN college football reporter Joe Schad that the coach was “pretty banged up” and that it could take some time for him to recover.
Meanwhile, a member of the football staff told Chris Low of ESPN that Petrino was “going to be OK” but did suffer injuries in the accident.
The early ESPN reports had the football program’s official spokesman giving the classic “no comment.” This was, mind you, more than 12 hours after the accident.
That’s exactly the wrong approach for an accident involving a man who’s arguably the highest profile figure in the state, including the governor.
Much too late, the university issued a vague statement from the family saying the coach “is in stable condition and is expected to make a full recovery. Our family appreciates respect for our privacy during the recovery and we are grateful for the thoughts of Razorbacks fans at this time.”
Jeff Long, the UA athletic director, was quoted as saying he “would consult with Petrino’s family about releasing more information in the future but said there would be no further details or comment until then.”
I spent almost a decade in the governor’s office as the communications director, and we had far too much experience at crisis communications during those years.
My first day on the job — July 15, 1996 — was a crisis as Gov. Jim Guy Tucker changed his mind about resigning five minutes before Mike Huckabee was to be sworn in as governor.
There were the tornadoes of March 1, 1997, that killed more Arkansans in a few hours than had been killed by tornadoes in all of Bill Clinton’s 12 years as governor.
There were the school shootings near Jonesboro in 1998.
There was much more. In all of these instances, our philosophy was to provide as much solid information as possible as quickly as possible.
As things got crazier by the moment on July 15, 1996, we held regular briefings for the media in the hall outside Lt. Gov. Huckabee’s office at the state Capitol. It was the biggest news story in the nation that afternoon.
In Jonesboro, we set up a media center in the Convocation Center on the Arkansas State University campus and staffed it 24 hours a day for almost a week, holding daily briefings for the media representatives who poured into northeast Arkansas from around the world.
I realize that the UA athletic department is an empire, separate in most ways from the rest of the school.
I realize that the Petrino regime has thrived on secrecy. Most fans, with the “just win, baby” mentality, are fine with that.
I suspect most employees of the athletic department live in fear of angering the temperamental Petrino.
But rumors thrive in a vacuum.
On Sunday night, the chancellor, the UA system president, the governor, somebody should have convinced Petrino’s family that it was in their best interest to have a media briefing at the hospital first thing this morning in order to provide as many details as possible — to be followed with briefings throughout the day.
It comes with being a public figure.
Ironically, I was watching old news clips with my son during the weekend of the March 1981 assassination attempt of President Reagan. Even though the White House press secretary, James Brady, had been shot, the White House was providing constant briefings with men such as Lyn Nofziger and David Gergen stepping in for Brady.
Yes, then-Secretary of State Al Haig stuck his foot in his mouth, but at least the White House was attempting to provide a steady flow of information.
Today, the University of Arkansas could have used a course in proper crisis management.
That said, our best wishes go out to Coach Petrino. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, coach. We wish you a speedy and full recovery.