On Jan. 4, 2011, Ohio State's Jim Tressel and Arkansas' Bobby Petrino squared off in the 77th Sugar Bowl -- a game that should retroactively be renamed Liar, Liar. Fifteen months later, both men no longer hold their jobs. The circumstances behind their ousters differed drastically in the details -- Tressel's involved tattoos, eligibility and NCAA violations; Petrino's motorcycles, infidelity and a sham job hire -- but they both boiled down to the same cardinal sin.
Both men lied and got caught.
The two coaches' unanticipated exits threw their respective programs into chaos. The Buckeyes, on the heels of seven straight BCS bowl appearances, lost their distinguished leader just three months before last season's opener. The Razorbacks, fresh off their first 11-win season in 24 years, will finish spring practice under the direction of an interim coach (Taver Johnson) who's only been there for three months.
But there's one stark difference between the two crises that directly impact the programs' ability to recover: Arkansas is not Ohio State.
A mere 13 months after the revelation of Tressel's incriminating e-mails, it's as if the whole thing never happened. The Buckeyes took their lumps last year under interim coach Luke Fickell, finishing 6-7, and they're banned from a bowl game this year. But with two-time BCS champion Urban Meyer now in charge, few doubt Ohio State will be back contending for Big Ten and national titles soon enough. Ohio State is one of the sport's most prestigious programs and thus can survive something as stigmatizing as TattooGate simply by going out and luring one of the most renowned coaches in the country.
Arkansas, on the other hand, is mostly a stranger to the rarefied air it currently inhabits. Furthermore, it plays in the toughest division in college football. AD Jeff Long was rightfully lauded Tuesday night not only for ousting Petrino but also for speaking candidly and tersely about the coach's moral betrayal of the Razorbacks' program. But now Long faces a challenge far greater than that of his Ohio State counterpart Gene Smith, even without the specter of NCAA sanctions. He must land the rare coach capable of producing Top 10 teams at Arkansas.
Say what you will about Petrino (If you don't, I will: He's a contemptible, egomaniacal blowhard), but there's no disputing his coaching acumen. He's been one of the brightest offensive minds in the sport dating to his time at Louisville. His gift for play-calling and his pedigree of producing standout quarterbacks are the main reasons Arkansas evolved into an upper-tier SEC program. His teams didn't produce defenses anywhere near the level of LSU's, Alabama's or South Carolina's, but his offenses could score points on almost any of them.
And it's not like this was some new revelation. In 2006, Petrino led long-irrelevant Louisville to a 12-1 record and an appearance in the Orange Bowl. The Atlanta Falcons thought highly enough of him to hire him away shortly thereafter, and Arkansas, desperate to get over the hump after a turbulent decade under Houston Nutt, shelled out $3 million a year (at the time) to pluck him out of the NFL.
Ohio State managed to replace a national championship coach with a .810 winning percentage (Tressel) with a two-time BCS champ boasting a .813 mark (Meyer). Is it realistic to think that Arkansas can find another coach with the equivalent of Petrino's two BCS bowls and 75-26 record (.743) he amassed at two major-conference schools?
At his press conference Tuesday night, Long said he would begin looking for a new coach immediately but had not yet decided whether it would be for 2012 or '13. "We are going to conduct a search and determine whether we can attract a coach that can lead this program," he said. "If not, then we would go with an interim [coach] and then do a search following the season."
Long has handled this situation so masterfully to this point that it hardly seems prudent to offer up advice, only to say that he should act with the long-term in mind -- even if it means sacrificing a potential dream season this fall.
Realistically, Long is not going to lure away a high-profile coach from a major program in the middle of April. It's too clunky for the coach, who would not only blowtorch the bridge he leaves but also would face the impossible task of hiring new assistants and installing a new system with only four weeks of preseason practice. But none of the in-house candidates inspire much confidence. Assistant head coach Johnson and defensive coordinator Paul Haynes are newbies from, of all places, Ohio State. And the offensive coordinator is none other than Paul Petrino, Bobby's brother, who returned to Fayetteville this offseason after two years at Illinois. That's not going to happen.
All of which has led some to suggest that Long should go get one of the central figures of Petrino's success, 2010-11 offensive coordinator and current UAB head coach Garrick McGee. With quarterback Tyler Wilson, running back Knile Davis, receivers Chris Gragg and Cobi Hamilton and eight defensive starters returning, Arkansas has a chance to produce an SEC title contender this fall, and McGee, with his expertise of the system and the personnel, could take over with minimal disruption.
But to do that would be to sell Arkansas' program short. McGee is a 39-year-old who's not yet coached his first game. While he's respected enough to land a head coaching job, it's only at a bottom-barrel Conference USA school. He may well be a future star, but better to find that out at UAB than to hand over the keys to an SEC program to a complete unknown.
Others have suggested former Arkansas and Auburn assistant Gus Malzahn, the renowned offensive guru who took the head coaching job at Arkansas State last winter. Yet it's hard to imagine Malzahn ditching the school that finally gave him his first head coaching job, and who's to say he's any more qualified than McGee?
Long's best hope of landing a worthy coach is to chalk up 2012 as a loss, painful as that may be to Razorbacks fans. Petrino dug this grave; no point unnecessarily jumping in after him with a hasty and regrettable hire.
Come December, Arkansas will be in much the same position Ohio State enjoyed during the last coaching carousel: Long will have a head start on other potential schools with openings and the entire season to plot his move. He won't be able to land another Meyer. There doesn't figure to be anyone nearly that accomplished on the market, and even if there were, the Arkansas job doesn't hold nearly the same enticements as the one at Ohio State.
But neither is it a gig at Minnesota.
Arkansas is an SEC program with a history of winning and a rabid fan base to support it. It's also shown a willingness to shell out big dough. Petrino was one of the nation's 10 highest-paid coaches, making $3.5 million a year by the time of his ouster. With that kind of money, Arkansas can entice an experienced head coach of similar or better profile than Petrino upon his hire.
Think TCU's Gary Patterson, who's turned down similar opportunities before but none in the SEC. Or Baylor's Art Briles, who just led the Bears to their best season in 31 years and, like Petrino, wins with high-scoring offenses. Or Louisville's Charlie Strong, if by chance he leads the rapidly improving Cardinals to a Big East title this season as many are predicting.
Asked Tuesday whether Petrino thought he was bigger than the Arkansas program, Long flatly replied: "Yes." The takeaway from Long's decision was that no, he most definitely is not. But Petrino was the best coach to grace Fayetteville since Lou Holtz spent seven years there in the late '70s and early '80s. It won't be easy finding another of his caliber.