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In defense of Bobby Petrino (and Arkansas)

Posted: Dec 13, 2007

Tribal Fever prides itself about being on the pulse of college sports in the Footprint.  We aren't here to sugarcoat it in any way.  College football is king down here.  Everything else runs a distant second.

In that light, we want to set the record straight.  The media needs stories for their 24 hour cycles, but the villification of Bobby Petrino's move from the Atlanta Falcons to Arkansas has gotten out of control. 

Take a quick view of this segment with ESPN's Sean Salisbury

Hey buddy, cut down on the raw meat. 

Now, let's listen to ESPN's Pat Forde

We like Pat a lot (Salisbury not so much), but let's sift through all the "myths" about Petrino, the Falcons, college football, and the Arkansas job.

Myth #1: Bobby Petrino is a vagabond coach - To move up in coaching, you almost always must move on. 

Now, the people at Louisville don't want to hear this, but they are not an elite football school.  They have almost no tradition to match any of the other schools in the Footprint, especially those in the SEC.  (This will be discussed in detail later on.)  Let's look at the facts about Louisville and its football program.

Howard Schnellenberger built Louisville football from nothing when he took the job in the mid-80's.  He left them to go to Oklahoma.

John L. Smith took over from the fired Ron Cooper (who succeeded Schnellenberger), and left Louisville to go to Michigan State, a mid-tier Big Ten school.

Petrino came after Smith left.  Petrino had been a coach under Smith, but he had also gone on to coordinate offenses in the NFL for the Jaguars and at Auburn under Tommy Tuberville.  He took the job at Louisville at the right time.  It was a good first head coaching job for Petrino.  He stayed at Louisville for four years.  He left for an NFL head coaching gig.

Myth #2: Bobby Petrino treated Louisville horribly when he was there - The problem with Petrino's tenure at Louisville was that he was a victim of his own success as well as the program's own somewhat deluded desire to make the leap into the first tier of college sports.  AD Tom Jurich hired the famed Rick Pitino (vagabond, anyone?) on the basketball side, and he wasn't going to let anyone outbid him for Petrino.

Again, coaches usually have to move on to move up.  Louisville had already become an established "stepping stone" program (see Myth #1).  When Jurich kept upping Petrino's salary, it likely created a problem.

Petrino was put in a bad position.  He knew that Louisville, even in its best day, had to finish undefeated to get a sniff of a BCS Championship Game.  In his last year, Louisville finished 12-1 with its only loss to Rutgers in a nail biter.  Louisville didn't even enter the discussions for the title game.  It was Florida or Michigan.  That had to be the final straw for Petrino who wants (like most top coaches) to coach at the highest level.

Petrino was a candidate at LSU after Nick Saban left.  He stayed at Louisville.  I'm sure he wished later that he had taken that job.  LSU is the first team to go to the BCS Championship with 2 losses.  That shows the respect that the SEC gets.  The Big East doesn't get that same respect, and likely never will.

Taking the Falcons' job was the best way for Petrino to move on without embarrassing Louisville.  The NFL was a clear step up from Louisville, something even Jurich couldn't deny.

Myth #3: Louisville to Arkansas is a lateral move -  This is the evidence that supposedly demonstrates Petrino's vagabond status.  If he essentially traded Louisville for Arkansas (with a brief NFL layover), why won't he be looking at another school by next season?

We love the Cards, but let's be honest about the nature of both programs.  Arkansas has been a college football power for decades with a winning history.  Arkansas was the only non-Texas team in the SWC during that conference's glory years.  Arkansas legend Frank Broyles (also the outgoing Arkansas AD) won 7 SWC Championships and a National Championship in 1964.  Lou Holtz and Ken Hatfield both had national success at Arkansas. 

During the SWC's glory years (which were also some of college football's glory years), Arkansas was a player on the national scene.

Louisville's football history is much different.  Although they have a few big names like Johnny Unitas, Louisville has been a mediocre program in a basketball state.  Louisville has also never really had a major college conference affiliation.  (Our readers know what we think of the Big East.)

Arkansas rightly believes that if the right coach can reestablish their school's recruiting base in Texas and marry that with their SEC recruiting footprint and great coaching, then Arkansas can become one of the best programs in the country once again.  There is every reason to believe that Petrino can do just that.

Myth #4:  Bobby Petrino is a lying backstabber - The evidence for this is the now infamous incident in which Petrino spoke with Auburn officials regarding their head coaching job.  At the time Tommy Tuberville was still under contract, Petrino was in his first season as Louisville's HC, and Petrino had just been Auburn's OC the year prior.

This has been the prime evidence for the numerous media catcalls about Petrino's history of screwing over "friends" like Tommy Tuberville.  TF wants to bring a little reality to this.  I hate to break it to you folks in the national media, but many of these coaches are not "friends".

Tommy Tuberville just fired his OC Al Borges who was the toast of the Plains a few years back when he had Jason Campbell, Cadillac Williams, and Ronnie Brown.  Houston Nutt hired Gus Malzahn because he was pressured to do so due to Malzahn's success at the high school level, and Malzahn brought some of his top players with him.  Nutt won a power struggle with Malzahn, which ended up sealing both of their fates at Arkansas.  The list goes on and on.

People may not want to hear it, but coaches have to strike while the iron's hot.  Petrino was a successful OC at Auburn.  He left to become a successful head coach at Louisville.  A big booster thought Petrino was the brains behind Tuberville's success and wanted him back.  Auburn (or any SEC head job) is a better job than Louisville.

Additionally, many of the coaches in the SEC got their job under scrutiny. Quite a few people thought Phil Fuler stabbed his former boss (Johnny Majors) in the back when he initially got the Tennessee job.  Nick Saban will never get Christmas cards from his former SEC school LSU or Don Shula after quitting Shula's beloved Dolphins to replace his son Mike at Alabama. Ole Miss hated it when Tuberville left their school to go to Auburn.  Gator fans howled when Steve Spurrier showed up in Columbia.  The list goes on and on.

More and more, it seems like getting an SEC head coaching job is like a game of "king of the hill".  You have to claw and scratch to get there, and then you claw and scratch to stay there.

Yep, this isn't country club tennis were playing here folks.  There are millions of dollars at stake for the head coaches and the universities that hire them.

Myth #5:  Bobby Petrino is all about the money - Petrino took a pay cut to go to Arkansas unlike Saban who got a raise to go to Alabama.  Petrino's contract is guaranteed in Atlanta so he would have received the entire amount even if he were fired.

Myth #6:  Arkansas is a desperate school -  Arkansas left the SWC because it was falling apart.  They went to the SEC because they knew it was an elite conference.  Since they have made the move, Arkansas has knocked on the door, but it hasn't been at the same consistent level as the top teams in the conference.

Since Arkansas fans remember the SWC days where they expected to compete with the best (ie Texas), this has been a hard pill to swallow.

Houston Nutt has been a good coach for Arkansas.  He will likely be a good coach for Ole Miss.  However, Arkansas fans have the right to expect more.  They are no different than Alabama (who dismissed Mike Shula) and Florida (who did the same to Ron Zook) because their fans felt they had fallen from an elite level.

Arkansas has the traditional recruiting base (Texas, Arkansas, Lousiana, West Tennessee, etc) to build a top program.  They believe that Bobby Petrino's style of coaching and his winning track record at Louisville will make that happen.

Alabama and Florida changed the rules once they gave their coaches pro level salaries.  LSU followed suit as has Auburn, South Carolina, etc.  So, the question now for schools is not how much you pay your coach, but how many coaches are out there that are worth $3 mil a year.  Petrino is one of them.  Even Pat Forde admits that he will win at Arkansas.  Isn't that what he is paid to do?

Myth #7:  Petrino could have waited until the NFL season ended - Maybe, but at what cost?  Timing is everything.  Petrino was a top candidate at Arkansas, but not the only one.  This is a key time in the recruiting season, and Arkansas's old coach just moved down the road to Ole Miss.  You can bet Houston Nutt will try to do whatever he can to sway some of his Arkansas commitments to Oxford.

Arkansas probably pushed Petrino to make a decision now.  Battles in 2008 are won on the recruiting fields in the off season.  Arkansas will be playing in a high profile bowl game, the Cotton Bowl, against 11-2 Mizzou.  Petrino and Arkansas know how important it is to have him settled into his position before that point.

Additionally, the Falcons forced his hand.  This will be addressed next...

Myth #8:  Bobby Petrino treated the Falcons poorly - This is a saga built on incompetence and ego.  The NFL might dominate that national sports landscape, but it does not do so in our Footprint.  We have an entire dispatch set up to evaluate the success of the NFL in the Footprint.  Of the 13 teams down here, most are failures in their ability to garner strong fan allegiance.

The Atlanta Falcons have long been the poster child for why the NFL doesn't work in the Footprint.  The Bobby Petrino saga exposed all the chinks in the armor.

Let's review:

Petrino came on as coach with one objective - make Michael Vick a winning QB.  Jim Mora was fired for his inability to do so.  Unfortunately for the Falcons, the whole world soon found out that Michael Vick wasn't worth the effort.

Petrino was left with a horrible situation in Atlanta.  The entire organization had been built around coddling Vick.  With Vick gone, there was a complete leadership vacuum.  The players were disrespectful of Petrino in the media and on the sidelines.  Owner Arthur Blank and GM Rich McKay were silent as Petrino had to fend off criticism from the Atlanta media who was only too happy to report everything these malcontent babies (ie Alge Crumpler and DeAngelo Hall) were willing to spew.

Swampland Sports via SPF warned Blank throughut the season that this approach was a poor idea.  Petrino was dealt a bad hand with Vick gone, and he was left to be savaged by the AJC on a weekly basis.  Knowing his value in the college game, it was only likely that his agent might look around or at least take a call.

Like Jeffrey Chadiha of ESPN writes, Arthur Blank is to blame for this mess because his organization has no accountability.  Chadiha still puts some blame on Petrino, but he points out that Blank gaveway too much latitude to Vick and to GM Rich McKay.  Petrino could only fix so much with his veteran players openly rebelling at every turn.

The company line from Blank and McKay is that Petrino should have given it more time, that he let down his players, his coaching staff, and the city of Atlanta.  Most of all, both claimed that they never saw this coming and that Petrino consistently lied to them about his intentions.

AJC story tells the real truth.  Petrino and his agent expressed serious concerns about his tenure as the Falcons coach three weeks ago, and the Falcons (maybe not Blank, but definitely McKay) knew he was contemplating a move back to the college game.  The details of Petrino's concerns about the Falcons will probably come out somewhere down the road, but the depth of the story now is that Petrino felt that he was not getting the latitude (probably on the personnel side) he was promised when he took the job.

The bottom line is that Petrino wanted to explore opportunities in college because of his growing unhappiness in dealing with the mess that Blank and McKay had allowed to happen. 

At this point, Blank's ego started to get in the way.  He thought, much like Wayne Huizenga last year with Saban, that coaching an NFL for a high salary was the top place for any coach.  The idea that his coach would even entertain a move back to college surprised and angered him.  (In fact, it took a call from Jerry Jones to wake Blank up to the fact that Petrino was interested in going back to college.)

Forever in marketing mode, Blank still had egg on his face from Vick and likely did not want to see his coach leave to go back to college.  Blank knows that it would only reinforce the perception of the Falcons and the NFL as being a clear step behind college football in his home market.

When Petrino's agent couldn't get permission for his client to speak with Arkansas, Petrino was faced with a difficult choice.  At that point, he made the decision to resign as the Falcons coach because that was the only way he could talk with Arkansas.  Even with all the differences in accounts, both sides agree that it wouldn't have been allowed otherwise.

Knowing that Petrino's problems in Atlanta were in large part a reflection on Blank's permissive atmosphere around the team, there were probably a lot of people within the organization from players to management that wanted Petrino gone.

We find it interesting that one of the key rabblerousers, DeAngelo Hall, now wants the Falcons to give him an extension.  This is truly a case of the inmates running the asylum.  The players get rid of the coach and now they are trying to quickly get a big payday in the wake of his leaving.

Petrino was promised Michael Vick and the support to do things his way.  He got neither.  A great job came open in a conference he wants to coach in.  The Falcons still have Petrino's money to spend on someone else.  End of story.

Myth #9: It will inevitably end badly once again - Anything can happen.  Dennis Franchione should have been better at Texas A&M after he had success at TCU and Alabama.  Sometimes good fits on paper have a way of falling apart. 

However, we don't buy into the idea that Petrino will be looking elsewhere within the year because there is no other place for him to go unless he fails at Arkansas.

Arkansas might not be there right now, but it has the history and potential to be an elite school.  The expectations are that by hiring Petrino Arkansas will again be elite.  Once Arkansas is elite, where does Petrino move up to?

Petrino doesn't have a high profile alma mater waiting to hire him (a la Les Miles).  Petrino has come to Fayetteville to turn the team into an elite program.  He has all the tools to do so.  If he doesn't, he won't get a promotion.

So, this is Petrino's situation.  If he wins at Arkansas to the level of expectation (National Championships), that job will be an elite job.  He won't have to leave.  He will just get paid more and more money to stay like Urban Meyer, Les Miles, and Tommy Tuberville have done.

If he doesn't win at Arkansas and gets fired, he will have to move down (ie Mike Price, George O'Leary) to keep coaching.

No matter what he does, the NFL will never be an option again.  The bridge has been completely burned.

Face it, Petrino critics - he has gone "all in" with his move to Arkansas.  He will only be on the market if he fails at Arkansas.

Conclusion - Bobby Petrino won't get any votes for our humanitarian of the year.  Arkansas won't get our votes for classiest institution either.  However, neither party is doing anything more than playing by the rules of the game as its now played in college football.

It seems to us that the negative media on Petrino has been driven by two cities (Atlanta and Louisville) who don't like thinking of themselves behind Arkansas in the pecking order (although we have clearly shown that to be the case when it comes to coaching) as well as a bunch of malcontent players on the Falcons roster who are much better at running their mouths than winning on the field.

In the end, Tribal Fever expects Petrino to be very, very successful at Arkansas.  SEC guru Tony Barnhart shows what it all means.  One day he is trashing Petrino (remember that Barnhart works for the AJC so he has to show some righteous indignation for how Petrino treated his city), but the next he is writing about how the SEC West will be so compelling for years to come thanks in large part to the addition of Petrino.

That's what it is all about anyway.  Athletics just keeps the tribes in a fever (yes, hence our name).  That's the way to riches and fame (and big donations to your state university in our Footprint).

In the meantime, we will leave all the high and mighty discussion for the Ivy League.

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fstokes, Thanks for your comment. I think the endless trashing of Petrino is becoming counter-productive for outlets like ESPN. Fresh on the heels of a completely uncalled for attack by Gene Wojciechowski about Petrino's supposed "lack of credibility" hurting his ability to recruit, Petrino convinced top QB Ryan Mallet to transfer to Arkansas from Michigan, beating out UCLA and others. Again, thanks for giving us some feedback and checking out the rest of Swampland.com!

fstokes says...

Thank you! You have laid out what I have felt about this "issue" more concisely than I ever could! This website is a great discovery as well.

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