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.

32 Responses to “The Petrino problem”

  1. John Yates says:

    Well said, Rex. Nice work.

  2. Mike McNeill says:

    “Dog on the sofa” — never heard that applied to a person but it seems apt. There are many football coaches who are not jerks, and who win. One can easily be secured to replace Coach Petrino.

  3. MickiNickHarp says:

    @ Mike McNeill: I respectfully disagree. It’s growing increasingly difficult to point to a coach in BCS college football, and especially SEC football, and not find ethical questions lurking at some point in that coach’s history. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t untested gems out there, but I do think in that traditional AR mindset–namely, that we aren’t quite big enough or prominent enough to attract a tested, winning coach, a la Saban or someone similar. I think we got a winner (on the field, anyway) in Petrino. I don’t know that that kind of talent can easily be replicated. And for better or worse, football is what bankrolls every other sport at UA, and what brings attention to our university.

  4. Adam Rule says:

    Nice job, Mr. Nelson.

    I’m glad to see journalists and commentators coming to the conclusion that there are more important things than winning games and raking in money.

    In my opinion all signs point to Petrino needing to be terminated from the UA. It’s a pretty clear decision.

    As I’ve read elsewhere, let’s not let situational ethics define our opinion here. Doing the right there here will hurt for a bit but we’ll feel good in the long term.

  5. Rick Brown says:

    Chris Peacock sent me. Good stuff.

  6. Michael Williams says:

    Funny isn’t it how wisdom increases with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight

  7. Rex–

    Excellent post. Again, you’ve nailed it. Bob Petrino has a Ph.D in football but he’s still in Kindergarten when it comes to relationships and how to treat people. What is rarely ever told about him is that he is an incredibly profane coach towards his players and his staff and incredibly abusive and demeaning to them. For those of us who choose to not live in that manner, it would make one vomit to hear some of his talk in this regard. This man is completely bereft of integrity, class and character.

    I don’t want to offer too much but upon quite reliable sources I can tell you there are other stunning allegations bubbling under the surface, ready to rear their ugly heads regarding Petrino. One involves writing a check for $15,000 so Jessica Dorrell could buy the Lexus she drives (an NCAA violation). Another is that Petrino conducted an affair with a flight attendant in 2009. Finally, the Cotton Bowl this past January was so thoroughly disgusted with their treatment by Petrino that they have no intentions to take Arkansas in their bowl game so long as Petrino is the coach.

    Jeff Long has but one choice: immediately terminate Bob Petrino for ample cause. There is only 99% downside and 1% upside in this present crisis. Right now, all trust has been broken with Bob Petrino. His staff hated and feared him before this incident and now, adding an extra layer of emotion — white hot anger at him for his destructive and selfish and petulant behavior — is simply too toxic to continue with a productive, creative and thriving work environment. Can you imagine the next time he MF’s a player during practice what they player may very well do? He very well might need plastic surgery after an incident like that.

    Lastly, when closely analyzing the potential effect on the football program if Petrino is brought back in spite of his dreadful and wretched behavior, the one aspect that will suffer the most will be recruiting, the lifeblood of any top college football program. Think about this for a moment: when a rival SEC coach is talking to a recruit who we are also trying to sign, just imagine what that rival SEC coach will say to the recruit; it will go something like this: “You want to play for a guy who cheated on his wife and told a bald-face lie to his boss and the fans? If you go play for him, he’ll probably lie to you, too!” Every coach in America competing with Arkansas for recruits will be saying exactly that. Recruiting will be DOA (dead on arrival) and suffer for at least the first several years if Petrino should remain as coach. It really is as simple as that.

    Which brings me to my final point: if Bob Petrino is fired, as he should be, then what do we do for a new head coach? Because the two things that will have been most harmed and damaged when this crisis is over are first, the loss of trust and integrity for the Razorback Football Program in particular and the University of Arkansas/State of Arkansas in general (it is already bringing up old wounds from the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal and the Houston Nutt-NW Arkansas TV Reporter story) and second, the damaging effect it will have on recruiting (the offense and defense has not been damaged by this crisis and most certainly should and will continue in capable hands), we must hire someone who has those as strengths in their personal and professional makeup.

    Further, because of the uniqueness of the Razorback Brand vis-a-vis the uniqueness of a state like Arkansas, we need someone who understands that brand and understands our state’s unique qualities when it comes to the Arkansas Razorbacks. In my mind, and in my humble opinion, there is but one person capable of filling that role: Tim Horton. People will say Tim’s never been an offensive or defensive coordinator or “this or that” but the fact is, what Arkansas needs the most right now is exactly what Tim possesses. He possesses a personal character and integrity that is beyond reproach. He will NOT embarrass the State of Arkansas, the University of Arkansas or the Razorback Football Program. Tim is the best recruiter on the football staff and is one of the very best recruiters in the Nation. And from the family he grew up in, from his achievements as a high school student-athlete in Conway and his achievements as a college student-athlete at Arkansas when he started at receiver when the Razorbacks won consecutive SWC Championships and he was part of a recruiting class that had the best 4-year winning percentage in school history, well, Tim Horton embodies all that is good and right about Arkansas and the Razorbacks. He is a winner in his personal life and has won everywhere he’s been in his professional life. I would make Tim Horton the interim coach for the remainder of the season and then make a decision a about a permanent coach following the season with Tim eligible to be considered for that permanent title should he do well in leading the Razorbacks between now and then.

  8. Darryl Rhoda says:

    Let’s see…..Presidents, CEO’s, Religious Leaders, Pro Athletes, etc have been having affairs since the beginning of time. They initially deny it until they are caught and then they admit it. Doesn’t make it right but it also is no reason to fire a guy. Best I can tell it has not affected his performance on the job that he was hired to do….coach football.

    All I know is that if I have a top performer working for me and he has a extramarital affair I’m not going to fire him for damn sure. That is between him and his wife. I may discipline him for hiring the woman (if it was indeed improper) but I won’t fire him.

  9. Rod Bryan says:

    Saying you hope a coach is like Frank Broyles is like saying you hope a Governor is like Orval Faubus.

  10. “Darryl Roda”–surely integrity and character and naturally trust must count for something in today’s world, especially in positions of authority and leadership, where such leadership and authority can be abused. Tressel . . . Clinton . . . Paterno . . . and on and on. All abused their positions of authority to the detriment of others. Simply put, your value system, and the way we have dumbed-down our values and ethics and morals is a direct reflection on the many economic and governance problems we have today. Denying that is only utter folly.

  11. “Rod Bryan” — Wow! Your comment is radically stupid. To compare Frank Broyles to a blatant racist is absolutely ridiculous. I challenge you to come back with another comment and detail exactly and specifically — with facts and evidence — the qualities that make Frank Broyles no different than Orval Faubus?

  12. Rod Bryan says:

    Read 40 Minutes of Hell.

  13. Rod Bryan says:

    I read this article again trying to put my finger on what bugs me most about it. Its just Pollyanna-ish. Petrino probably still wants to be the coach of the Razorbacks. He doesn’t want to leave. You make it seem that he gave up on the program. If you had high expectations for him to be a new man, that’s your own fault, not his. Broyles didn’t have the pressure to win and he certainly didn’t have the media onslaught upon him that Petrino does. At least Petrino isn’t a member of Augusta National. That’s a feather in his cap in my book.

  14. Rod Bryan says:

    Last thought. Its not a “Petrino Problem.” Its a Razorback problem. He is what he is. He was paid to win football games and that is what he has been doing. I was perfectly happy with Houston Nutt. And Houston wasn’t fired because he was messing around. He was fired because he didn’t win it all every year. They used his personal life against him. Karma is a bitch in Fayetteville.

  15. Jill says:

    You don’t toss him out for this. You just don’t. He’s a good man who has done a lot of good for the state. People deserve a second chance.

  16. Todd Gurley says:

    Hey Rex–it has been a long, long time. You haven’t lost your touch. Somehow we’ve all lost the focus of what this is about… and you’re trying to bring us back. This isn’t about Bobby or Jeff or even Frank. It’s about the Razorbacks. The brand. We can’t allow an individual to grow bigger than the institution. If the facts allow him to stay, so be it. But, this is the moment for Jeff Long to take back the brand from the coach; the time to reset the clocks.

  17. max says:

    fire him

  18. Rod Bryan says:

    Hey “Fire Mark” : You are right about the “blatant racist” thing. Semi-closeted racists like Broyles are much worse. I prefer that nazis wear their gear so I can see ’em coming.

  19. frank on the hill says:

    seriously jill? he’s a good man? what kind of home were your raised in? take away that he screwed around on his old lady, let’s see what else your mr. wonderful has done. what about the GD’s and MF’s that pour out of his filthy mouth for all the world to see including kids that watch the game. what about hiring his girlfriend with my money? can you not see that folks in the football business seem to think this guy is an arrogant jerk. bobby p is a self-centered, egotistical, arrogant jerk. do you wear a t-shirt around with a hog on it along with bobby p’s “favorite words”? he is an embarrassment. he is a liar. he is a cheater. i wonder what else he’s cheated on while at the u of a? the folks up here on the hill need to take a serious look everything involved with this clown and see if having this jack wagon on board is worth all the money and the wins. give him a second chance? he’s had plenty of chances at this stage in his life and he just gets worse after each on of them. he hasn’t won you a national title. hell, he hasn’t even won you a conference title. what has he done for the state? he won some football games and he embarrassed us. oh, he won some football games. so what. does winning football games give him a license to embarrass us? does it jill? maybe you’re right. maybe he is a good man. maybe, jill, one day maybe your daughter will grow up and marry someone just like him. would that make you proud if your daughter married a sorry so and so like bobby p? heck no it wouldn’t. the fist time your son-in-law got caught with his 25 year old bimbo on his bike, you would be telling your daughter what a sorry so and so he was. seriously, jill? he’s a good man?

  20. frank on the hill says:

    i had another thought jill. it’s a football game. a football game is more important that human decency? really? are people in this state or any other state really so caught up in a football game that they would turn their collective heads and ignore this trash? surely not.

  21. Michael M. says:

    I blame the people of Arkansas more than Petrino. YOU made him bigger than the program. YOU put him on that pedestal. YOU care more about winning than anything else. And why should he be held to a different standard in his personal life than the biscuit cookers or the log hauler from Stamps? YOU made him as big as he is. Then you blame him for letting it affect him. Your quaint musings about what it means to be an Arkansan are silly. Everyone thinks their home is special, whether they come from Calcutta or Hong Kong or Cleveland. I hate to break it to you, but Arkansas is just another place, no more, no less. I am a native Arkansan, but the place is nothing special when compared to other nice places. So, you and the fans are to blame for the Petrinobot. YOU are the ones who place entirely too much importance on Arkansas football. Have you ever considered that your priorities in life are totally out of whack? Maybe you should.

  22. Mike McNeill says:

    Just be clear, poster Michael M is not me.

  23. It is imperative that I repeat some information from an earlier post and encourage any media types and any athletic department officials reading this comment to do some serious digging (how about start with confronting Petrino personally!) about the following:

    “I don’t want to offer too much but upon quite reliable sources I can tell you there are other stunning allegations bubbling under the surface, ready to rear their ugly heads regarding Petrino. One involves writing a check for $15,000 so Jessica Dorrell could buy the Lexus she drives (an NCAA violation). Another is that Petrino conducted an affair with a flight attendant in 2009. Finally, the Cotton Bowl this past January was so thoroughly disgusted with their treatment by Petrino that they have no intentions to take Arkansas in their bowl game so long as Petrino is the coach.”

    These stunning allegations cry out full vetting and determination as to their truthfulness before Jeff Long reaches a final decision that is anything short of termination. Otherwise, if the allegations are true, it will be more embarrassment for our beloved Razorbacks!

  24. Ace-one says:

    I person in power having an affair is one thing. A person in power who hires his mistress to work under him? That shows a clear inability to separate one’s personal life and one’s professional duties. I’d dismiss him.

  25. Darryl Rhoda says:

    History is full of men of great integrity and wisdom…. who have also committed infidelity. A number of our country’s founding fathers certainly fit this bill. Just because someone breaks one of the ten commandments doesn’t make them a evil person. Otherwise Rex Nelson and the rest of us should be considered just as evil.

    Bobby Petrino should be judged by his overall job performance, not by his marital performance.

  26. Jay says:

    This is no different than a politician keeping his son out of combat or a businessman turning his business over to his son. Nepotism and fraternization exist everywhere. The real issue is everyone has to pick a side and draw a line in the sand. Who cares what his morals are like? How many Lombardi fans do we have here? He was brought in to win football games, not be a role model. If you don’t like him as a role model for your kids, try being a role model yourself. Wow, what a concept…….

  27. frank on the hill says:

    jay, obviously you are one of those people who just do not understand what is important in life. winning really isn’t that important in the whole scheme of things. do you cheat at work to impress your boss or to game an advantage over your competition? if you do, that’s the wrong way to get where you’re trying to go. it’s sad that so many people in this state have nothing more important in their lives than the razorback football team. when you take on the role that bobby p. has taken on, being a role model comes with it. stop trying to justify it in your mind jay just because he has had two winning seasons. we should require a coach to be honest and have some dignity. wow, what a concept….

  28. Darryl Rhoda says:

    Frank on the hill… you think that anyone who has ever broken one of the Ten Commandments is immoral or lacks integrity, or just certain commandments? Perhaps just the commandments that you yourself have never broken?

  29. Robert says:

    @FireMarkPryor – if you have all of this reliable information, why are you hiding behind the alias? Use your real name if you are going to throw out those type of accusations!

  30. frank on the hill says:

    darryl, i’m not judging. the guy has long history of caring about no one except king bobby p. i’m sorry, but i would like to watch the football game with my kids on not have to hear them ask “what does that mean daddy?” after bobby p. rolls out one of his very profane rants. it’s not necessary. does that language make him a winner? i don’t think so. i am insulted by a guy who goes on statewide tv with that possum grin while giving his “heartfelt” apology only to learn that the entire thing was a sham intended to mislead the people of arkansas. he didn’t want a player to go to a funeral of a good friend. you see darryl, this guy has been dishonest and lacking of integrity his entire professional career. i would hope that this university could find a head coach who has some semblance of class. this guy oozes of classlessness. it’s not about the ten commandments DR. it’s about being a stand up guy. bobby p. isn’t a stand up guy.

  31. Good for Jeff Long to fire Bob Petrino.

    In this present crisis, what has been damaged most are: image/perception/trust/character/integrity AND recruiting. And who on the current staff has the attributes to best repair these things that have been damaged? I humbly believe that one person is Tim Horton. His integrity and character are beyond reproach. And of the coaches on the current staff, he is the best recruiter. Many of the current starters are players he recruited. In fact, Tim is one of the best recruiters in the Nation. (his Arkansas bio says “Horton is Arkansas’ running backs coach and recruiting coordinator and has been recognized by and as one of the nation’s top recruiters since arriving at Arkansas”).

    Tim embodies everything good and decent about Arkansas Razorback Football. At at time when the state needs to come back together and get through this terrible crisis, it needs an Arkansan like Tim who knows the People of Arkansas better than anyone on the staff. Is he an offensive or defensive guru? Maybe not but he doesn’t need to be. That’s not what we’re looking for and not what we need right now. Things on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball would not change under Tim . . . it would be status quo, which is all good.

    Again, what we need is a steadying personality of strong character and integrity and someone who can recruit their tail off. That is Tim Horton and only Tim Horton!

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