Bobby Petrino, motorcycles, crisis management

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.

12 Responses to “Bobby Petrino, motorcycles, crisis management”

  1. Randy says:

    Accidents happen, and my initial response to this was: “This is just a typical motorcycle accident involving someone who was doing a little pleasure riding.” But the sudden Cone of Silence that was clamped down over this incident sends out another message entirely. As far as I can tell, there’s not even a police report on this yet.

    As a journalist, I know that when people *act* like they have something to hide, it’s often because they *have* something to hide. There are a lot of journalists out there who now will redouble their efforts and completely doubt the veracity of what they are told, based on the initial response by various public officials to a traffic accident. And if those officials are up to something, they should remember: It’s always the cover-up that *really* gets you in trouble.

  2. Jim says:

    Considering we had to hear the first real update from the national sports media (ESPN), and not a Little Rock or NWA reporter, “doubling their efforts” may go undetected. Arkansas media once again asleep at the wheel.

  3. Hogwalla says:

    I’m just thankful Coach Petrino is mostly ok. This could have easily been a tragedy.

  4. bubba lloyd says:

    was he wearing a helmet????

  5. bkn says:

    According to the story posted on Arkansas Sports 360, he was not wearing a helmet.

  6. Kane Webb says:

    Great post, Rex. You nailed this one. The Program handles major news issues about as poorly as any outfit in the country. Why hold back on this? Folks are worried. They care about Bobby Petrino. Treat people like concerned adults, for cryin’ out loud.

  7. Derrick Rose says:

    You nailed this right on the head. I actually had people Facebook me that they thought it was an April Fools joke. Even if this accident is nothing more than a plain ole run of the mill motorcycle accident, it makes one wonder if there is something more to this story even if there is nothing to tell. Well, here is hoping for a speedy recovery.

  8. James Rawlings says:

    Considering the dearth of information coming from inside the football program regarding player injuries and disciplinary matters, it is no surprise that the media was kept on the outside in this instance. Based on the family’s statement, Petrino seems to be similarly private in his personal life. In fact, I would not be surprised if Jeff Long initially learned of the accident via social media. He may have issued a statement as soon as he knew Petrino’s condition. It would not surprise me.

  9. While my post isn’t exactly on point from what Rex wrote very well about, I hope that the AD and Chancellor will rip Petrino “a new one” over this incident just like Petrino would profanely rip his players “a new one” for riding a scooter or a motorcyle or playing basketball or something like that which could cause an injury and cause the player to be out of action for practices and/or games. This will cause Petrino to miss some being a part of practice like he usually is — which is important since his complete dictorial control of the program is critical to its sustained success — but it certainly could have been a whole lot worse (paralysis or death). What is a top level college football coach making millions of dollars a year, leading a multi-multi-million dollar revenue-producing organization doing riding a motorcycle? How ignorant and stupid! From reading news reports tonight, Petrino even says he expects to keep riding motorcycles. Wow! And what a hypocrite Petrino is for having told his players in the past to avoid similar dangerous activities all the while he’s out running around on his motorcycle. As a former college football player myself, I can’t tell you how many times I heard our head coaches tell us not to ride scooters or motorcycles or play basketball during Spring Practice or the season, etc. When you’re paying someone like Petrino several million dollars a year and have such a huge investment in him, he needs to be told that there are some things that he will have to give up. Just goes with the territory. Much like the President of the United States has to give up certain things when he comes into office. And if Petrino balks at such direction from his bosses, well, perhaps he should not take a job making several million dollars a year.

  10. Bulldog Drummond says:

    If the entire state of Arkansas really was on pins and needles, we’re a pretty sorry lot, afflicted with miserable, boring lives.

    I join everyone in wishing Coach Petrino a speedy recovery. I wish Arkansas could recover from its childish obsession with the Razorbacks.

    There’s more to life, folks, than the fortunes of a bunch of teenagers playing a game.

    By the way, I’ve had season tickets to the Hogs’ games since 1954.

  11. Randy says:

    ….and my suspicions are confirmed. I also wonder if there was such a job as “student-athlete development coordinator for football” until Dorrell was hired. Razorback fans should hope so; that fact and the fact that she has a master’s degree and a serious athletic background would help this to look a lot better than it does right now.

    Worst case scenario is that 1)The job didn’t exist until recently 2)she was making a major pile of money as a 25-year-old and 3)nobody knew exactly what she did or saw her at the office much, if at all. If that is the scenario, then this could be very bad.

    That police report is an interesting read — in the wrong way. To me, it raises more questions than it answers.

    I don’t live in Arkansas any more and some of these issues might already be cleared up, for all I know. But if the Cone of Silence routine is still going on, that is the wrong way to go. Disclosure and directness are Petrino’s best (or more accurately, “least worst”) friends right now.

  12. It’s times like these when the integrity and character of a person like Tim Horton is sorely needed in the Head Football Coach position at the U of A! So what that he’s never been an offensive coordinator. I bet he’s got enough football sense with all the football he’s been around to make a pretty darn good offensive coordinator hire . . . every bit as good as Bob Petrino, all the while keeping the reputation of Razorback Football above reproach. Sometimes leadership means knowing how to lead and how to bring in and manage competent people.

    What a mess!

Leave a Reply