"Today's announcement is the culmination of a comprehensive search process which was intended to identify a leader for our football program that would serve our student-athletes and fans with class and dignity."-- Jeff Long, Dec. 11, 2007
"We have high standards and a national reputation. Our expectations from our employees can be no less than what we expect of our students. No individual can be bigger than the team, the Razorback football program, or the University of Arkansas."-- Jeff Long, Tuesday
When the news of Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino's latest fib broke Thursday, I wrote that Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long faced a difficult choice. He could either keep a liar or fire a winner. I was wrong.
Petrino left Long no choice.
In a review spurred by the revelation that Petrino had lied about whether he had a passenger when he crashed his motorcycle April 1, Long uncovered two numbers that had to end any debate about whether Arkansas could keep Petrino.
159: The number of applicants for the job Jessica Dorrell was hired for on March 28.
$20,000: The amount Petrino paid to Dorrell in cash before he hired her.
In statements Thursday and Tuesday, Petrino, who is married with four children, acknowledged an inappropriate relationship with mystery passenger Dorrell. Long's review discovered that the relationship began long before Petrino hired Dorrell. Long also discovered that the job search -- which included two other finalists -- was "shorter than our normal affirmative action hiring process." In other words, Petrino used a truncated search to hire his mistress to a job for which she may not have been the most qualified applicant.
Had Arkansas kept Petrino, it would have turned the other 158 applicants into plaintiffs. Attorneys would have descended on Fayetteville screaming Sue Pig Woooooie!
Those people would have made easy money, too. Some of the millions in donations Petrino brought in by winning might have turned into settlement funds. In the future, university employees would have faced difficulty firing anyone over an inappropriate office relationship. The fired party could simply hire an attorney, who would, in much more polished legalese, say something to the tune of, "But you kept Bobby Petrino."
"By itself, coach Petrino's consensual relationship with Ms. Dorrell prior to her joining the football staff was not against university policy," Long said. "By itself, it's a matter between individuals and their families. However, in this case, coach Petrino abused his authority when over the past few weeks, he made a staff decision and personal choices that benefitted himself and jeopardized the integrity of the football program.
"In short, coach Petrino engaged in a pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior designed to deceive me and members of the athletics staff both before and after the motorcycle accident."
So Long had to take the extraordinary step of firing Petrino with cause. (Long denied reports that he had offered Petrino conditions for continued employment that Petrino refused.) Yes, Petrino's contract contains a clause that should allow Arkansas to fire him without paying him a cent, but the man had won 21 games the past two years. He returned a team that probably would have started the 2012 season ranked in the top five. As much as Long spoke of the integrity of the university, the athletic department and the football program, no one really wanted to get rid of the man who raised the Razorbacks to an elite level. Coaches who can win 10 games a season in the SEC West are few and far between. When you have one, you don't let him go unless you absolutely must. Petrino, the ham-fisted Lothario, somehow managed to make himself too expensive to keep.
Long performed well Tuesday. He made the decision he had to make despite the fact that it placed his own neck on the block. Of course, he did hire Petrino in the first place. He knew Petrino hadn't been up front with his bosses at Louisville and with the Atlanta Falcons. Long shouldn't have been surprised when a man with a history of lying to his bosses lied to his boss.
Long knew who he was hiring when he nabbed Petrino from the Falcons after 13 games in 2007. Despite the past two weeks, whether Long chose correctly remains up for debate. If he finds a coach who can build on the success of Petrino -- who made the program better and who raised money for new facilities in the process -- then the Petrino era was a messy, embarrassing net gain. If this debacle sets in motion a chain of events that drags the program back toward mediocrity, it was a mistake.
Petrino, meanwhile, will have to live with the consequences of his mistakes. In his statement, Petrino said he wished he had been given the opportunity to meet with his players. Funny, but he didn't seem to care about meeting with his Falcons players when Arkansas hired him. He left them a 78-word letter. He didn't seem to care what his Louisville players thought when he went behind everyone's back to interview with Auburn -- which didn't actually have a job opening at the time.
Petrino's statement started out contrite. "I'm sorry," the statement said. "These two words seem very inadequate. But that is my heart. All I have been able to think about is the number of people I've let down by making selfish decisions. I've taken a lot of criticism in the past. Some deserved, some not deserved. This time, I have no one to blame but myself."
The statement also included this gem: "I'm sure you heard Jeff Long's reasons for termination. There was a lot of information shared. Given the decision that has been made, this is not the place to debate Jeff's view of what happened. In the end, I put him in the position of having to sort through my mistakes and that is my fault."
Hopefully, Petrino doesn't think the place to debate Long's view of what happened is a courtroom. Hopefully, he won't waste a court's time trying to prove Arkansas didn't have cause to fire him. If he thought Long's review turned over a lot of rocks, he really doesn't want to endure pretrial discovery. His best bet is to slink away. Some school will eventually hire him. He wins football games. That makes up for any number of foibles.
In his statement, Petrino said he is "committed to being a better husband, father and human being." If he starts with the third, the first two will take care of themselves.