Up in Smoke?

Bobby Petrino's reckless rule got him canned—and potentially caused a world of trouble for women working in sports
April 23, 2012

In mid-March, 30-year-old Christianne Harder applied for a position as player development coordinator for the University of Arkansas football team. Ambiguous as that title may seem, Harder, who had previously worked in the Stanford and Washington football programs, knew it was a plum job. The eventual hire would, among other duties, handle the Razorbacks' recruiting logistics.

"That position, at a school like Arkansas, given its place in the college football landscape, is a coveted job," she says. "Probably the highest position a woman can get in a major football program."

At the time she applied, Harder was a consultant for Western Kentucky's football team, advising on recruiting and social media. She was a strong candidate, yet she didn't even get an interview. "That didn't surprise me," she concedes. "Those jobs are usually about who you know."

Two weeks ago, when news broke that Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino, 51, had crashed his motorcycle while riding with Jessica Dorrell, a 25-year-old Arkansas graduate, Harder—along with the rest of America—found out who had landed the Arkansas gig. Dorrell had played volleyball in Fayetteville and done fund-raising for the Razorback Foundation, but she had never worked in football. Still, Arkansas hired her, going so far as, according to documents obtained by SI.com through the Freedom of Information Act, circumventing an affirmative action policy at Petrino's request in order to add Dorrell as soon as possible.

We now know that Petrino and Dorrell were having an affair and that the coach put his mistress on the payroll. Petrino, who is married with four children, also gave Dorrell $20,000, which she used to buy a car. Arkansas fired the coach last week, a sudden fall for a man whose team went 11--2 in 2011 and would have entered '12 as a national title contender.

Scandals like this often prompt discussion about the state of college athletics. To be sure, there are lessons to learn from the affair—not to mention the affaire. Petrino was the "power coach" typically found in college scandals: He was lionized for his success to an unhealthy degree; he was allowed to operate outside the normal system of checks and balances; and he was afforded special exemptions, which led to more power and, eventually, to the abuse of that power.

If school officials had simply insisted on having a real say over who was hired by the football staff, Dorrell would never have beaten out the two other finalists for her position, a former NFL player with a master's degree in sports management and a law student with two master's degrees who had previously helped coordinate Arkansas's summer football camps.

The debacle is also a reminder that schools reap what they sow. Petrino's unprincipled ways were well known before he was hired by Arkansas five years ago. At Louisville, in 2003, he secretly interviewed for Auburn's head coaching job while it was still held by his former boss, Tommy Tuberville. He lied about the interview until Auburn confirmed it. Later, in '07, he abruptly quit his position as the Atlanta Falcons' head coach 13 games into the season, one day after assuring owner Arthur Blank of his committment.

If a school hires a dishonorable man and then gives him unchecked authority, university officials cannot express shock when it all goes south. Athletic director Jeff Long has been praised for acting decisively, but it shouldn't be forgotten that he had embraced Petrino, warts and all, in the first place.

Despite those obvious lessons, Petrino's downfall isn't likely to prompt great change in the way coaches are vetted, hired or even handled. It is, however, certain to have a significant impact on the job prospects of women, like Harder, who long to work in college football.

A Cal graduate, Harder has interviewed for nearly a dozen football operation positions in the past 16 months. But she can count on one hand the women she knows of who are currently employed as recruiting coordinators at major football programs. Not hostesses, not administrative assistants, but coordinators with substantive responsibilities. "Women [aren't hired as] assistant coaches, so logistical positions are the only good jobs available to us," she says. "And most of them still go to men."

Harder says that she forgoes dresses and heels in the workplace so as to not be viewed as "a distraction." She doesn't work out in a school's weight room when football players and coaches are present. And she limits her social interactions with players and staff members so that no one can accuse her of inappropriate contact. "You do everything you can to be taken seriously," she says.

It is a challenge, Harder adds, that because of Jessica Dorrell just got a lot harder: "She has unintentionally set all women who work or want to work in college football back for who knows how long."

At a coaches' convention in January, Harder met an assistant from an SEC school. She kept in touch, networking, and got him to schedule a dinner meeting. Before the dinner occurred, Petrino's affair became public.

"[The coach], who is married, called and said he no longer felt comfortable meeting. He didn't want the dinner to be misconstrued," says Harder. "Dinners, drinks, talks at conventions—these are how connections are made. How will I get my foot in the door at another program now?"

She may not. It is not unthinkable that Bobby Petrino will get another chance in football before Harder or another woman sees an opportunity like the one Dorrell wasted. It is a disheartening thought, particularly two months away from the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX. At a time when we should be celebrating progress, another thick pane has been added to football's glass ceiling.

SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE

Organizers of the London Olympics reached out to the manager of The Who to ask if former drummer Keith Moon would be willing to participate in the Games' closing ceremony. Moon died in 1978.

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