The Petrino problem

Back in December 2010, I wrote a blog post titled “Welcome to our family, Coach Petrino.”

Here’s how it started: “With the news during the weekend that University of Arkansas officials and Bobby Petrino have worked out an employment arrangement that runs through 2017, it appears the Razorback football coach has committed himself to this state for the long haul.

“After all, the buyout provisions are perhaps unprecedented, and there’s a noncompete clause with all the other Southeastern Conference schools. Could it be that Bobby Petrino has made the same decision that a famous Georgia native named Frank Broyles made all those decades ago?

“Broyles, who certainly could have returned to his alma mater of Georgia Tech as the head football coach, instead decided that he would be an Arkansan, raise his children as Arkansans and die an Arkansan (though I’m beginning to think Coach Broyles is immortal).

“That’s not to say Petrino wasn’t welcomed previously. He was welcomed with open arms. But many of our state’s residents always had a nagging feeling that the Arkansas job would be a steppingstone to a traditional national college football power — a Texas, a USC.

“Those of us who were born and raised here find ourselves thinking that good things won’t last — we’re too small, we’re too poor, we’re not educated well enough. That’s what we tell ourselves.”

I went on to note that “we enjoyed Lou Holtz, but we always sensed he was passing through. We knew Danny Ford would return to raise his cattle in South Carolina sooner rather than later. Going way back, Bowden Wyatt accepted our gift of a Cadillac and promptly drove it to Knoxville.

“Suddenly, perhaps unexpectedly, it appears (Petrino) may be more Frank Broyles than Lou Holtz. We like that. We like it a lot. It feels good when someone wants to be one of us.”

I was duped.

It turns out we have an out-of-stater we lured to Arkansas with big bucks who produced results but failed to build relationships, grew in arrogance, thrived on secrecy, always thought he was the smartest person in the room, treated some people with contempt and lied to cover up mistakes.

What an icon he could have been. What a tragedy for all concerned.

Here’s how I ended that Southern Fried post back in December 2010: “Coach, you’ve inherited a sacred trust. Politics might divide us, but Razorback football unites us unlike anything else in this state. The Wal-Mart millionaire from Bentonville, the cotton farmer from Eudora, the log hauler from Stamps and the waitress from Osceola all have something in common when it comes to the Hogs.

“We’re glad that after three years here you’ve decided to cast your lot with us for the long haul. You’ll like being an Arkansan. If you don’t believe me, just ask Frank Broyles. They don’t call this the Land of Opportunity for nothing.”

What we have is a heck of a college football coach with deep character flaws. My gut sense is he will stay in his job. If I were in Jeff Long’s shoes (thank goodness I’m not), I would be compelled to find a new coach.

Razorback football is so important to the people of this state (the debate over how healthy that is will be saved for another day) — such a part of our fabric as a people — that the leader of that program must be more than a great coach on the field.

Someone for whom I have respect sent me an email during the weekend that read in part: “We will never be able to push the money and power out of college sports. We’ve let the dog on the sofa, and he isn’t leaving. But we can make college football programs and the people who run the programs accountable.

“I have not seen any reporting on what message a seventh- or eighth-grader will take away from what’s playing out in Fayetteville right now. Kids have to believe in what’s right. Otherwise the slippery slope we’re on today will only lead to something you and I never want to acknowledge might happen in college sports.”

We saw what happened at Ohio State.

Thankfully, we don’t have the NCAA infractions that happened there. As far as I know, the Arkansas football program is clean when it comes to the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference.

We saw what happened at Penn State.

Thankfully, we’re not talking about anything as horrible as someone molesting little boys.

Ohio State, Penn State and Arkansas, however, are all examples of what can happen when The Program becomes bigger than the school.

I wrote a Southern Fried blog post last Monday morning when this story was first breaking about the university’s failure in the area of crisis communications. None of us knew at the time that Petrino was lying to everyone around him.

I guess it was my old reporter’s sixth sense that caused me to believe that something just didn’t smell right. A full 14 hours after the accident, Zack Higbee, the spokesman for the football program, was still refusing to comment. Once a comment did come from the university, it was short and it was vague.

Why hadn’t someone convinced Petrino to allow full details of his medical condition to be released late Sunday night or early Monday morning to clear the air and prevent rumors?

The reason: Everyone was scared to question him or challenge him.

Petrino has received everything he has wanted since coming to Arkansas.

The cost of the glorified new dressing room (called an operations center to make it more palatable to donors) has soared to almost $40 million to meet Petrino’s various demands.

He pulled that veil of secrecy over his football program, a veil that fortunately doesn’t infect other high-profile programs at the university such as men’s basketball and baseball. Behind the veil was a growing sense of hubris.

Winning was all that mattered, right?

The NCAA has a term it calls “institutional control.” While being careful to again point out that there are no NCAA violations here, it seems clear that prior to last week the athletic director and the chancellor were losing institutional control of their football program.

Perhaps the silver lining in this mess is that they will now regain some semblance of control.

The thing that’s most galling about the hubris is that the bills are paid by the hard-working people of this state through their ticket purchases and foundation contributions. Often, they’re people who are paying more than they can really afford because they love their Hogs.

Petrino has given them a winner on the field.

Would it be so hard to show them respect off the field?

Would it be so hard to say on a regular basis, “Thank you. Thank you for entrusting this program to me. I know what it means to you. I’m going to work each day to justify your trust on and off the field.”

Would it be so hard to show some humility and some graciousness?

While the UA didn’t do enough to get the word out last Monday, it did too much on Tuesday with the news conference by the beaten-up Petrino and the big show of his being at practice.

Driving to Conway and back on Wednesday, I listened to the talk radio types praise this “tough, tough man.”

Frankly, it had all seemed a bit contrived to me. The man should have been home getting well. Once we had the details of his injuries, we didn’t really need to see his scarred face.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Petrino was trying to put this story behind him as quickly as possible.

The truth came out, as it tends to do.

So now the UA athletic director — with advice from the chancellor, the system president and members of the board (all capable people) — is faced with a career-defining decision.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I still think a coach can win at a high level, be a tough guy on the field and be a gentleman off the field.

When Broyles was winning at just such a high level in the 1960s, he never lacked confidence. Yet he always remembered that the people who counted were the people in Arkansas’ 75 counties — “the biscuit cookers” as Witt Stephens used to call them. He treated them with the dignity they deserved, and they loved him and his program for it.

There’s an important lesson there for current and future Razorback coaches.

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