Columns » Max Brantley

I was wrong about UA

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I wrote last week that I expected Bobby Petrino to retain his job as football coach at the University of Arkansas. I was wrong. No buts.

Jeff Long, athletic director at the UA, fired him not long after we went to press with my prediction. He did so effectively. Long's systematic and sometimes emotional explanation for the firing instantly destroyed a Save Bobby movement. It made Long a newly minted icon for integrity in athletics.

My column did note correctly the core problems. Petrino not only behaved recklessly in his private life, he brought it into his public job when he recommended the hiring of his girlfriend (current or former is in some dispute) for a $55,700 job on the football staff. Neither he nor the woman, Jessica Dorrell, informed the university of this appearance of potential conflict, in violation of university rules. Petrino also lied to Long when he told him, and media, that he was alone in a motorcycle wreck April 1. Dorrell was aboard.

Let's not beatify UA administrators just yet.

They hired Petrino, who had established a record of inconstancy at two previous jobs. Long was sufficiently aware of that to handcuff Petrino to UA — and the UA to Petrino — with an $18 million buyout clause now deemed unenforceable.

They continued to treat the coach deferentially. When Petrino cursed a ref or opposing coach, the UA didn't remonstrate. He was allowed to hire his brother for $475,000 a year. Bro. Petrino might be a great coach, but employing extended family is sticky, as the Houston Nutt reign proved.

Petrino's son was added to the football staff in a non-paying role, with sideline access and a jumbo Cotton Bowl ring to go with the other perks. Petrino's daughter once got a job in the athletic department.

Don't forget the university's first response after a serious wreck involving its $4 million man. It regurgitated his dishonest statement, which urged press to give the man some privacy. Since then, it has been selective in response to Freedom of Information Act requests — quick to release those that tar Petrino, not so fast on those related to other administrative actions.

It's no wonder Petrino thought he was invincible. Much of his money and perks come from the secretive Razorback Foundation. Its millions wouldn't exist without the franchise of the public university and premiums charged on tickets, but it answers to no one. Why should Petrino expect any less deference?

The university's fiction about the foundation persists. The human resources officer who participated in the expedited waiver of hiring rules so Petrino could install his gal pal quickly on his staff is daughter of a former Razorback baseball coach who now works for the Razorback Foundation. That is not a conflict, I was informed, because the Razorback Foundation and UA are unrelated. Except that one raises essential money for the other, including that HR person's salary.

In this incestuous world, where demigods such as winning football coaches have celebrity status, it's somewhat surprising that Petrino's tomcatting was unsuspected by anyone until the release of a State Police report April 5. (Well, except maybe by those sportswriters who've long bounced the rumors around in off-the-record bull sessions.)

So, yes. Jeff Long made a tough call and did so heroically. I was wrong to think wins and losses and money would dictate otherwise. But let's not kid ourselves that we've fully fumigated the UA playing fields against current or future infestation.

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