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Arkansas Fires Bobby Petrino! Where Do They Go From Here?

Wow is about all I can say when it comes to Arkansas’s decision to fire head football coach Bobby Petrino. To rehash the story, Petrino was involved in a motorcycle accident a few days ago. Initially he said he was the only one    riding the bike with him, and initially that is what Petrino told AD Jeff Long. Then it came out that Petrino wasn’t alone, but was with a 25-year old former Arkansas volleyball player who Petrino hired as a student-athlete development coordinator. It then came out that Petrino, a married man, was having an inappropriate relationship with this woman and that he had talked to her on the phone frequently and have given her a $20,000 gift.

My first reaction to all of this is basically BIG DEAL! We are talking about SEC football here folks. It doesn’t get any dirtier (or better for that matter) in college football. Head coaches are people too and they are going to make mistakes regardless of their position. That doesn’t make it right. Petrino is married with 4 kids and he’s in a position of power & authority as a head football coach at a major university. You can could easily argue that Arkansas is a top-10 program over the past two seasons, and with that kind of power comes great responsibility, a responsibility that Petrino abused and thus cost him his career at Arkansas. Even forgetting the morality of it all, Petrino should have been up front with the AD and that might have saved him. Trying to cover that up essentially put the last nail in his coffin. On top of that, it’s not like Petrino has been the most honest guy in the world. Remember the secret meeting he had with Auburn while he was coaching Louisville that he initially denied and then was caught? He blamed that on being a young coach. OK I suppose, but then he left the Atlanta Falcons with 3 games left in a season with nothing more than a signed note taped to each player’s locker! That isn’t exactly the way you do things in the NFL! Even with the hire, Jeff Long had to think he was making a deal with the devil. There was no question Petrino could coach up a college football team. Look what he did at Louisville. On the other hand, Petrino hadn’t been the most stable of employees.

Like it or hate it, there are a couple of ways to look at this.

The first way is from Bobby Petrino’s perspective. Did Petrino make a mistake? Absolutely, but Dorrell is a 25-year old woman. She can do what she wants to do. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Dorrell herself was engaged to be married while carrying on an affair with Petrino. It’s not a crime to have bad taste in men. He certainly made a mistake with the woman and he certainly shouldn’t have hired her in a position within the athletic department Petrino himself was working in. Petrino also shouldn’t have been dishonest with Long, but as I’ve said before, coaches are people too. Aren’t guys like John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer still coaching? Meyer’s Florida teams had arrests records longer than my leg while Pitino was banging a waitress. Calipari has had a couple of Final 4 runs vacated because of violations while Rodriguez got hit hard with some violations while coaching Michigan. Meyer now coaches at Ohio St. Pitino is still at Louisville. Calipari just won a national championship at Kentucky & Rodriguez is entering his first season as head coach at Arizona.

Petrino is 51-years old. He’s going to get another chance to coach a football team. It might not be a BCS school immediately, but if he winds up at someplace like Fresno St. or Sout Florida, you can be for sure it won’t be long before those teams are winning 10 games and somebody is going to notice. Petrino could easily have another 15 years of coaching left in him, and I doubt he’s going to hang it up at this point in time. No way. Let’s also not forget that his record speaks for itself. In 2002, John L. Smith took Louisville to a 7-6 record before bolting for Michigan St. Petrino came in in 2003 and led Louisville to a 9-4 record. In the next 3 seasons he would lead the Cardinals to records of 11-1, 9-3 & 12-1. He would win CUSA in 2004 and the Big East in 2006. That 2006 team ended the year ranked #6 in the nation! Ditto in 2004. Petrino ended his tenure at Louisville by leading the Cardinals to a BCS Bowl win when the Cardinals took down Wake Forst in the Orange Bowl. Petrino bolted in 2007 for the Atlanta Falcons where he went 3-10 before quitting. He immediately became the head coach at Arkansas.

Houston Nutt was fired from Arkansas in 2007 after leading the Hogs to an 8-4 record, but Petrino was essentially left with the task of building the program back up. It didn’t take long. In 2008 Petrino went 5-7. Then he went 8-5 in 2009 which included a Liberty Bowl win. IN 2010, Nutt had Arkansas in the BCS Sugar Bowl where they lost to Ohio St. 24-14, but ended the season 10-3 and ranked #12 in the nation. In 2011, Arkansas would have almost been a lock for a BCS bowl after going 10-2 during the regular season, but Alabama (11-1) and LSU (13-0) were the two best teams in the nation and just happened to play in not only the same conference but the same division. Arkansas’s lone 2 losses came at the hands of both Alabama & LSU. If those two teams were the best teams in the nation, then Arkansas could make a case for being #3. Arkansas would have to settle for a Cotton Bowl win, an 11-2 record and a final ranking of #5 in the nation. In his 8-years at Louisville & Arkansas, Petrino has a career winning percentage of .743. That’s exceptional considering it took him a couple of years to get Arkansas back and a year or two to get Louisville into form.

Yes the man can coach. There is no doubt about it and this is why I think we’ll hear from Petrino in the future at some point.

The other way to look at this is from Arkansas’s perspective. It’s not a death blow to the university, but it’s fairly close. Nobody can touch Nick Saban when it comes to being a head football coach, but if Arkansas fans want to say that Petrino was the 2nd best HC in the SEC, then I wouldn’t have argued with them. Sure you have Spurrier at South Carolina, Les Miles at LSU & Gene Chizik at Auburn. All three of those coaches have national championships to hang their hats on, but Petrino was dominating at places like Louisville & Arkansas. He wasn’t winning national titles at Florida, LSU & Auburn, but you got the feeling that if Petrino stayed around for the long haul, then Arkansas might get a national championship one day by virtue of playing in the most brutal college football conference on the planet. Petrino was that good! In the short term, the rest of the SEC has to be pretty darn happy to have Petrino out of their hair! The SEC is exceptionally tough and having a top flight coach at Arkansas certainly wasn’t helping.

As for Arkansas themselves, Long is now in the process of finding the new HC. Here is a list of rumored potential candidates that could come to town:

Garrick McGee (Former Arkansas OC; current HC at UAB): Most likely a step back for Arkansas. How do they know McGee can win with a D1 football team if he’s never had the opportunity?
Butch Davis (Former North Carolina HC): Doesn’t he have his own baggage following him around since his days at UNC? If you wanted scrutiny you might as well keep Petrino.
Gus Malzahn (Former Auburn OC, current HC at Arkansas St.): McGee’s argument works here too, but Malzahn is so hot it might be worth a pretty big gamble that he can be brilliant as a HC.
Skip Holtz (Current HC at South Florida): Obviously his father coached at Arkansas, but Skip isn’t exactly setting the world on fire coaching up USF.
Paul Rhoads (Current HC at Iowa St.): Love this guy. He’s making Iowa St. competitive which is no small feat. Is proving he can get it done on a D1 level.
Gary Patterson (Current HC at TCU): Potentially the hottest coaching name in college football the last few years along with Chris Petersen of Boise St. Got TCU into the Big XII, but could jump into the SEC, the biggest of them all!
Mark Hudspeth (Current HC at UL-Lafayette): I love this guy! Did an amazing job with the Cajuns this past season. His star is on the rise and he’ll get a shot somewhere very soon.
Dave Wannstedt (Former Pittsburgh HC): Long hired him at Pitt. Wanny didn’t do a fantastic job with the Panthers and that was Big East football!
Kirby Smart (Current Alabama DC): Another crazy hot coordinator! The arguments for McGee & Malzahn pop up here as he’s never been a HC before. Can he succeed?
Mario Cristobal (Current HC at FIU): Another HC name on the rise. Has done an outstanding job turning Florida International into a winning team! No easy feat at all.
Sonny Dykes (Current HC at Louisiana Tech): Won the WAC in only his 2nd year at LA Tech. High flying offense works well with what Petrino did. Was associated with North Carolina a little before Larry Fedora got the job.
Bo Pelini (Current HC at Nebraska): Forget it. Yes Pelini coached at LSU, but he’s a Big 10 guy through & through and don’t forget that Nebraska is college football royalty. Going to Arkansas is a step down for him.
Dave Doeren (Current HC at N.Illinois; former DC at Wisconsin): Just got the NIU gig. Should do well, but a little behind guys like Malzhan & Smart when it comes to overall coaching buzz.
Charlie Strong (Current HC at Louisville): I could see this in a way given that Strong was a DC at Florida. Turning Louisville around slowly but surely.
Willie Taggart (Current HC at Western Kentucky): Was 2-10 (2-6) in his first year at WKU. In his 2nd he took the Hilltoppers to 7-5 (7-1) and a 2nd place Sun Belt finish!

What’s important here for Arkansas is that it at least has to stay even with where Petrino left off. Picking the wrong head coach could set a program back 10 years or more which is truly scary considering Arkansas plays in the SEC. It’s a very unforgiving conference. If the Hogs pick the wrong coach and give him 5-years then it’s 5 years of lost seasons. Then you have to get a new HC with the program down. Say it takes him 2-3 years to pick up the pieces. That’s 7-8 seasons right there of wandering the wilderness. Tack on another couple of years because we are talking about the SEC and you have an Arkansas program that Petrino had in the top-5, now considering the prospect of a decade without high caliber football on a national level. That’s a huge dropoff.

If the past is any indication, then Arkansas needs a coach who had the success that Petrino had at Louisville before coming to Arkansas. The only man on that list with that kind of resume is TCU’s Gary Patterson. Patterson has been a tough sell getting out of Ft. Worth, but if wanted to make the leap, I doubt Arkansas would have any reservations about naming him the HC. It would probably take Long all of about 1 second to decide Patterson is their guy.

If Patterson won’t jump ship, and you want a HC who has proven himself to a degree then I think next up would be Rhoads, Hudspeth, Cristobal, Dykes, and Strong. If you wanted to really go out on a limb with an unproven guy who has cut his teeth as a great coordinator then you start looking at McGee, Malzahn & Smart.

It’s certainly not an easy decision and maybe some coaches might not want to wade into the Arkansas waters, but this is a great football program playing the premier division of the premier conference in college football. Petrino showed you can be a top-5 team in Fayetteville! I think he was on his way to winning a national championship as well. There certainly is a school of thought that you can only win national championships at certain schools. Arkansas is certainly one of those schools, but it will take an exceptional coach to make it so. Petrino was that kind of guy but had personal problems preventing him from attaining those heights at Arkansas. That doesn’t mean another coach can’t step up and take his shot.

The HC position of a school that can win a national championship doesn’t open up often and when it does, coaches should jump at the chance. Arkansas is one of those schools so they should have no shortage of applicants. Besides, college football is just better when Arkansas is among the elite.

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April 12, 2012 - Posted by | Arkansas

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