We're about six months from the start of the 2012 season, one in which Arkansas figures to begin in the preseason Top 10, but now the man who runs the Hogs football program, coach Bobby Petrino's career is in serious jeopardy. At. 8:30 p.m. CT Thursday night, Arkansas A.D. Jeff Long informed Petrino that he was putting the coach on administrative leave while he reviewed the mess that is unfolding there in the wake of Petrino's motorcycle crash last Sunday.
In a statement issued before Long met with the media late Thursday night, Petrino admitted to a "serious mistake in judgement" in not revealing the presence of Arkansas staffer Jessica Dorrell, a 25-year-old former Razorback volleyball player he had hired just a week earlier, at his accident. Petrino's statement went on to say that his motivation for not revealing Dorrell's presence was to "protect my family and a previous inappropriate relationship from becoming public."
Just a day earlier the 51-year-old coach showed up at a podium for his own presser in a neckbrace and with his face all bruised and swollen. Now he is at the center of a media greasefire, the kind that has become a lot more toxic than if the same circumstances had played out a decade, or even just five years earlier because there is just so much more connectivity and traction with scand, er, stories. Especially stuff like this: You have a successful coach, already with a dubious personal history ethically (don't think Atlanta Falcons fans or Louisville fans aren't loving this) of a hot program in the big-top world of the SEC, linked to an attractive blonde, who by the way, is engaged to another person in the Razorback athletic department. It has the capacity to keep the Twitterverse buzzing for weeks while Long tries to sort out what exactly happened with his $3 million coach.
At the press conference, you could see how blindsided Long was. He said he doesn't really know what he's looking for until he finds it.
Winning coaches often get the benefit of the doubt. And Petrino, love him or hate him--and most people outside of the state of Arkansas tend to go with the latter, is a superb offensive coach. He is 34-17 in four seasons at Arkansas in the toughest division in college football. Two seasons ago, the Hogs finished 12th in the nation. Last year, they finished fifth. They're going to be loaded on offense again, led by QB Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis, and they have both Alabama and LSU at home. Expectations are soaring. Or at least they were till Thursday night.
It is such a mess. Can he go back to work after being at the center of this? How does he face his co-workers? His team? How does he sit down in a recruit's home on the couch and speak to the kid or his parents after this? Some people I spoke to Thursday night (several who work in college athletes) said they don't see how Petrino can survive this. Really? It wouldn't surprise me at all. While these are valid questions, we've seen repeated instances of coaches getting themselves into awkward and embarrassing situations time and time again and yet, if the guy is a winner, people will give them another chance. Lots of folks have short memories. A lot shorter than those it seems of the media--and rival fans. It happens so often we just shrug our shoulders whenever that guy later says something that sounds like pure rhetoric, and yet a thirsty fan base is usually right there to vigorously defend him and administrators and boosters are there to pay him lots of money provided the guy wins enough games and doesn't get stuck in any NCAA spiderwebs.
The stickiest part of this, I suspect, will be the fact that Petrino had just hired Dorrell and the circumstances of that legally will be something Long and the Arkansas brass has to sort out first. We'll see where that one goes. As I said before, this one's messy. It's also early in the stages.
My hunch is if there is any way Arkansas can keep him realistically, Petrino will get to coach the Hogs in 2012. Of course, that's a pretty big 'if'.