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Need to Know

No Easy Solution to Arkansas’ Conundrum

Here’s a scene to consider:

It’s January, after the end of the regular season, and the Razorbacks are neck-and-neck with teams like Auburn, L.S.U. and Texas A&M for a recruit the coaching staff feels can make an immediate impact. It’s time for the in-home visits: first Auburn, then L.S.U., then Aggies, followed by Arkansas. Arkansas puts on the full-court press for a big-time prospect, sending its own star, Bobby Petrino, into the recruit’s living room to tout all that he and the program have to offer.

I think you can see where this is going.

Family, commitment, responsibility – these are currently no-go words for Petrino, and may continue to ring hollow for the rest of his coaching career. These words also double a coach’s go-to in the living room, when he lists his own qualities in an attempt to convince a recruit and his family to sign on the dotted line. If Petrino could use them before, he can’t today.

The significant hit Petrino’s reputation will take is one factor that Arkansas will consider as it reviews the matters of Petrino’s “inappropriate relationship” with an athletic department employee and his subsequent lack of truthfulness with police and the university. Is there a chance that Petrino becomes such damaged goods that his negatives outweigh his positives?

Let’s say Petrino survives – Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long fines him, suspends him for a few months, but Petrino leads the Razorbacks onto the field in September. The program would need to at least wonder about three possible ramifications of that decision:

1. A team pegged by most as a genuine SEC and national title contender loses focus. A team with 11-win potential slides to 7-5. The talent is there, but the mental edge is missing.

2. Arkansas’ rivals – the rest of the SEC – use Petrino’s missteps for their own benefit on the recruiting trail. Any team that goes head-to-head with the Razorbacks subtly drops Petrino into every conversation possible, in fact. Once the program’s biggest recruiting asset, Petrino becomes a massive liability.

3. After allowing Petrino to retain his position through the fall, the university decides in January that the situation is no longer tenable. However, after opting against firing him in April, the university encounters difficultly voiding Petrino’s contract on grounds that he engaged in activities “clearly contrary to the character and responsibilities of a person occupying the position of head football coach.”

If that was the case, why didn’t Arkansas fire Petrino in April? His current contract, signed last March, pays Petrino $3.56 million annually. If the Razorbacks can’t prove – nine months after the fact – that it is firing Petrino on grounds that he violated a clause in his contract, how much would the school owe its former coach? Ten million dollars? More?

This is why Arkansas is completing a “thorough review” of the situation. It’s a cut-and-dry case – Petrino made a pretty damning mistake – with no clear solution. Consider the opposite response to the one listed above: Arkansas fires Petrino, promoting interim head coach Taver Johnson in his place.

In the immediate, the Razorbacks lose the head coach who built this program, over four years, into a national title contender. In addition to losing Bobby Petrino, the program might also lose his brother, Paul, the new offensive coordinator, who might choose to leave Fayetteville rather than remain with the team without his brother in charge.

In the longer view, Arkansas loses all the momentum it had developed over the last 36 months. The program returns to its Nutt-era state: somewhat mediocre, occasionally a non-B.C.S. January bowl contender, never a national title contender. Maybe Petrino’s replacement – Gus Malzahn, perhaps – keeps the train rolling; maybe he doesn’t. As a coach, Petrino is as close to a sure thing in major college football.

Could the Razorbacks be damned if they do, damned if they don’t?

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  1. Ezra says:

    I immediately thought “Gus Malzahn,” too. ArkieState fans have to be on edge…

  2. Gotham Gator says:

    If you keep him, you have to eliminate the buy out. It’s the only way.

    Thank goodness Urban Meyer came to Florida in 2005. Petrino was the backup plan that year.

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