The last time members of the media gathered in Bud Walton Arena on the University of Arkansas campus for a program-changing announcement, it was the introduction of Mike Anderson as head basketball coach. That was until tonight.
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long met in front of members of the media to announce that he had terminated the contract, with cause, of head football coach Bobby Petrino effective immediately. Petrino was in the midst of a controversy dating back to April 1 when he was involved in a motorcycle accident. It was initially reported that Petrino was alone on the bike, but was later revealed that he was in the company of Jessica Dorrell, a newly-hired employee in charge of recruiting for the football team, with whom Petrino had an “inappropriate relationship”.
Long said that he met with Petrino prior to making his decision to inform him that there were grounds for his termination, but officially told him he was fired by letter, which was allowed under his contract. He also met earlier with members of the team and coaching staff to inform them of the decision. Long, fighting back tears, said that he told the athletes to focus on remaining practices and academics.
“We are committed to providing leadership befitting of our mission to develop our athletes to their fullest potential,” Long said. “Our primary obligation is to our student athletes as an educational institution and we hold high standards.”
Long found the offense enough to justify the firing of Petrino, citing Petrino’s lack of honesty and not being forthcoming as the primary reasons for his dismissal. Long placed Petrino on administrative leave following the revelation of his dishonesty and conducted a further review into the matter. He said that he “approached the task fairly and thoroughly” and reached his decision earlier today when meeting with Petrino.
“I reviewed the manner, timing, and the extent of information shared [by Petrino],” Long said. “I looked beyond the accident itself at the personal relationship he had with his passenger and the reasons he had for hiring her.”
Long went on to give several key findings in his review of Petrino’s conduct. The first was that he “knowingly misled” both the university and its athletic program, as well as the general public and media. Long said that Petrino had several opportunities to be forthcoming but chose not to be so. It was made clear that it was Petrino’s dishonesty that led to his downfall, rather than his actions.
“Standing by itself, Petrino’s relationship with Ms. Dorrell was not against university policy,” Long said. “But he abused his authority by making personal choices benefitting himself and the integrity of Arkansas football.”
These choices involved the hiring of Dorrell and the process that was used in doing so. There were 159 applicants for the job that Dorrell applied for, but only three were selected as finalists, including Dorrell. Long said that the hiring process was shorter than the usual affirmative action process that is usually used by the university. It was also revealed that Petrino presented Dorrell with a $20,000 payment, though Long did not discuss the timing or nature of this payment. Petrino’s indiscretion was, again, dishonesty. He did not disclose his relationship with Dorrell before or during the hiring process, creating a conflict of interest and giving her a “unfair and undisclosed advantage”.
“Petrino exhibited a pattern of reckless and deceiving behavior,” Long said. “This is contrary to the character and responsibilities we at Arkansas demand of our head football coach.”
Long appeared deeply disappointed in the events that transpired given his personal relationship with Petrino, but realized that his program was more important than any personal relationship and he had to do what was best for Arkansas. He said that there was “no single individual bigger than the team” and that he would seek a coach to maintain the reputation of Arkansas football. When asked if he was implying that Petrino thought he was bigger than the team, Long tersely replied, “Yes”.
Long also addressed the immediate future of the Razorback football team, which is coming off an 11-2 season and a victory in the Cotton Bowl. Taver Johnson, an assistant coach who was put in charge while Petrino was on administrative leave, will remain temporary head coach through spring practices, but the athletic department would immediately begin searching for another coach for next season. Long said that he expected coaches to be attracted to the job at Arkansas given its prestige and upgraded facilities, but acknowledged that this is an awkward point in time to begin a coaching search. He said he would consider using an interim coach for the upcoming season and hiring a permanent coach for 2013.
Long clearly had a very difficult decision to make, evidenced by nearly being moved to tears while discussing the future of the program. Long brought Petrino into Arkansas as a transformational head coach, and he did just that. He had a 34-17 record in his five years at Arkansas, including 21-5 the last two, and rejuvenated the program into a SEC power.
Many thought that, because he had been so successful as a coach, Petrino would retain his job. But Long, who said several times that he was disappointed in his former coach’s lack of judgement and failure to tell the truth, did what he believed to be best for his program. And it was likely the right move, given the circumstances. Long deserves tremendous credit for standing up for his university’s program and doing what is right for the university and not necessarily what will create the best product on the field.
It would have been a huge distraction throughout the season had Petrino been kept on staff. Given his previous indiscretions and the magnitude and tone of this controversy, it was the best thing for Arkansas to do. It is tough to say where they go from here, but they have the players to be an elite team this year, including Heisman hopefuls Knile Davis at running back and quarterback Tyler Wilson. It will be a steep test for the Razorbacks to overcome and Petrino’s dishonesty could derail what was once a promising football season.