The affair with a woman young enough to be his daughter was the least of Bobby Petrino’s worries. If that was the sole charge he faced, Petrino still would be employed as Arkansas’ football coach, mapping out practice schedules with an eye toward next week’s Red-White spring game.
Claiming that he was alone last week when he crashed on his Harley-Davidson was problematic but probably survivable. When the truth came out, revealing that mistress Jessica Dorrell was a passenger, it was a huge embarrassment but not necessarily a fireable offense.
Considering the wild success Petrino enjoyed, going 21-5 the past two seasons while Arkansas raised a reported $53 million in donations for athletics, terminating his employment would require a major violation or two. Even then, football’s rabid nature in the Southeastern Conference and Arkansas’ desire to run with the big dogs could give Jeff Long pause.
But Long, the athletic director, couldn’t overlook all of the above plusPetrino giving Dorrell $20,000 in cash before hiring her two weeks ago for a job in the football program. Despite the career risk in firing a coach who led Arkansas to its first BCS bowl game in 2010 and a No. 5 final ranking in 2011, Long couldn’t keep Petrino.
Wins and dollars aren’t undefeated in big-time college sports, but it’s rare when they’re not overriding factors in coaching decisions that can go either way. There seems to be a sliding scale, which allows coaches leeway in proportion to their winning percentage. Unless laws have been broken or NCAA infractions have occurred, successful coaches often stay in place as long as the victories continue.
We saw the dangers in that approach at Penn State, where coach Joe Paterno reached God-like status while harboring an alleged pedophile on his staff. Paterno’s firing might have signaled a new era in college football, but other recent dismissals could be part of the trend, too.
Jim Tressel nearly survived a series of lies at Ohio State before resigning under pressure in May. Butch Davis nearly survived after a season-long investigation at North Carolina before he was sacked in July, just after the ACC Media Days.
The Penn State case is an outlier in its lewd and graphic nature. Ohio State and Tressel ultimately received NCAA sanctions which would have led to his firing. North Carolina was hit with penalties about one month after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Davis as a special assistant to coach Greg Schiano.
Scandals don’t always result in dismissals. Former Alabama football coach Mike DuBose kept his job after lying about his relationship with a secretary who filed a sexual harassment complaint in 1999. Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino was retained in 2009 after a tawdry romp in a restaurant became public amid an extortion case.
But the Petrino case feels different, a countermeasure to the waves of negative publicity plaguing college football lately. It’s true that Petrino exposed Arkansas to potential litigation from the 158 candidates he passed over in favor of Dorrell, which practically forced Long’s hand. Yet there was speculation that Petrino might keep his job because he’s that good and that valuable.
Many Arkansas fans voiced their support, figuring that a coach who wins is more important than a coach who lies to the athletic director and hires a girlfriend. If Long had concluded the same, imposing penalties and conditions on Petrino instead of axing him, it wouldn’t have been a complete shock.
Long’s move was the right one. Nonetheless, it took a measure of courage. He made the hire in 2007 despite the notorious prevaricator’s shady stints with Louisville and the Atlanta Falcons. Long highlighted that mistake in firing him.