Ethics Prevails Over Wins in Petrino Matter
“Today’s announcement is the culmination of a comprehensive search process that was intended to identify a leader for our football program that would serve our student-athletes and fans with class and dignity.” — Jeff Long, Arkansas Athletic Director, Dec. 11, 2007
The past is a prologue to the future. — paraphrase of a quote written by William Shakespeare in The Tempest.
The Jeff Long quote was from his press conference in 2007 when he announced the hiring of Bobby Petrino as head coach of the Arkansas Razorback football program.
Just over four years later, on April 10, 2012, he made the following statement at another press conference, this one to announce that Petrino had been fired for cause. “We have high standards and a national reputation. Our expectations from our employees can be no less than what we expect of our students. No individual can be bigger than the team, the Razorback football program, or the University of Arkansas.”
The Shakespeare quote has been paraphrased by many people. It has been used when making the point that we can better understand what the future may hold if we pay attention to what has happened in the past.
Petrino was in his first year as the head football coach at the University of Louisville when in November 2003 he met with Auburn University officials in secret at a small airport in Shelbyville, Ind., near Louisville. Three high-ranking Auburn officials had used the private airplane of Montgomery banker Bobby Lowder, then the chair of the Board of Trustees. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss offering the Auburn job to Petrino, even though Tommy Tuberville had not been fired and still had a game the next weekend against Alabama.
Word of the meeting leaked and the offer was never made. The Auburn president and AD were soon forced to resign and Tuberville, after defeating Alabama, was given a new long-term contract.
Barely three years later, Petrino left Louisville and took the head coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons. After a 3-10 start to the 2007 season, rumors began to swirl that Petrino wanted back in the college game. Falcons owner Arthur Blank spoke to Petrino after a practice on Dec. 10. Petrino shook his hand and assured Blank that he was the coach long-term. About 27 hours later Petrino was in Fayetteville, Ark., attending the press conference announcing his hiring. He left a 78-word letter on the locker room stools for his Falcon players.
Long should have known what he was buying when he hired Petrino. So now we have the spectacle of the coach having a motorcycle wreck late in the afternoon on April 1. The next morning the school issued a statement saying that he had been riding his bike alone after spending the day at an area lake with his wife. When he got word from a State Trooper, who has acted as a bodyguard for him on game days, that the accident report was about to be released, Petrino finally told Long, his boss, about the presence of another woman with him that day whom he had previously described only as a “woman who had come to the scene and called 911.”
We now know that this woman is a 25-year-old former Arkansas volleyball player, Jessica Dorrell, who Petrino had hired on March 28 to work in the football department. It appears that he had begun an “inappropriate relationship” with her a good while prior to that. She was hired from a field of 159 applicants for that job. According to Long, Petrino had “truncated” the hiring process when he “inappropriately” hired her. It also seems that at some point shortly before hiring her Petrino might have given her $20,000.
Add to all of those allegations the facts that she had been engaged to be married June 9 and Petrino is married and the father of four children. And so a perfect storm blew up when he lost control of that motorcycle on a winding, rural road.
Despite reports that Long had tried to find a way to punish Petrino but not fire him, Long had little choice but to fire his coach for cause. The fact that his teams were 21-5 the past two seasons and only lost to LSU and Alabama in 2011 could not overcome the damage that Petrino had wreaked. Nor could Long allow the fact that the 2012 team, currently involved in spring practice, is likely to be ranked in the Top 10 influence his decision.
Make no mistake about this—a sizeable number of well-heeled boosters and students were willing to overlook their coach’s alleged “indiscretions” because nobody’s perfect and besides, he wins football games. The team is currently led on a temporary basis by an assistant coach. No one really knows at this point who will be tapped to coach the team this year.
No one can really argue with the conclusion that Petrino’s alleged behavior was unacceptable and damaging to many people. Petrino was owed over $24 million for the remaining seven years on his contract. He still may decide to sue to try and collect part of that money.
Yet Long really had no choice in the matter. If Petrino was allowed to keep his job, then the university would be hard pressed to fire anyone in the future who engaged in inappropriate relationships with co-workers or persons he or she supervised. Firing Petrino now allows Long, and other top school officials, to say they acted decisively as soon as they learned there was a problem.
Right now there are 158 applicants for the job Jessica Dorrell (the recently hired employee by Petrino) got who may be lining up to file employment discrimination lawsuits. The university needs to try and take steps that can minimize legal exposure.
Long declined to comment at the latest news conference when asked if Dorrell is still employed by the athletic department. They have to be very careful how they treat her. She could very easily bring a sexual harassment suit or a wrongful termination suit.
Long stated at the news conference that Petrino had acted in a deceptive manner and had lied to his superiors. What part of the past situations involving the Auburn job and his exit from the Falcons job did Long not know about when he hired Petrino? Is it OK to hire someone who more than once acted in an unethical manner, as long as it didn’t involve your organization?
Petrino will likely coach again if the past is a prologue to the future. Mike Price was fired from the Alabama football head coaching job after a drunken night at a Florida strip club (coming on top of some other episodes around the campus) and was hired a year later to coach at UTEP. After Bobby Knight was finally fired as Indiana head men’s basketball coach in May 2000 in the wake of his latest episode of inappropriate conduct, he surfaced a year later at Texas Tech. Larry Eustachy was fired as men’s basketball coach at Iowa State following a wild night of partying with college fraternity members. He was later hired as head coach at Southern Mississippi.
People should be allowed second chances and people can change. Petrino has built a reputation during his entire career for acting self-centered, arrogant and intolerant of others. Only time will tell, if he can change.
Unethical and unseemly behavior can be overlooked when the wins are rolling in. Ethics seem to surface among administrators when the economic factors align in such a way that the school may lose money because of this poor behavior. But for an accident on a slippery, twisting roadway Petrino would today still be the deified head coach of Arkansas.
When will sports management people learn? If Joe Paterno had been called to task back in 1998 or in 2003, would Penn State be dealing with its ongoing crisis? If someone had stepped in and stopped Woody Hayes, would he have been retired before that late December night in 1978 when he punched a Clemson player on national TV in the Gator Bowl? If someone stood up to Knight years earlier, would the Indiana program have had to endure 10 years of wandering in the wilderness before this year’s success?
The stories about Bobby Petrino should serve as a warning to anyone working in the field of sports. Use sound judgment and exhibit ethical behavior today and you won’t be worried about a scandal and possible lawsuits tomorrow.
The United States Sports Academy teaches ethics and legal studies to its students to better prepare them for career in sport. For more information go to http://ussa.edu.
Dr. Greg Tyler, Esq., is The Sport Digest editor and the Library Director/Archivist at the United States Sports Academy. Before joining the Academy, Tyler practiced law for a number of years. He also currently teaches online classes on sports issues at the Academy and in the past Tyler has lectured on intellectual property law.