Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long became emotional Tuesday night as he talked about his decision to fire coach Bobby Petrino.
Petrino was fired for cause after engaging in an inappropriate relationship with 25-year-old Jessica Dorrell and then using his position as the football coach to hire her as a student-athlete development coordinator in March.
"By itself, coach Petrino's consensual relationship with Miss Dorrell prior to her joining the football staff was not against University policy," Long said during a press conference Tuesday evening. "By itself, it's a matter between individuals and their families. However, in this case, coach Petrino abused his authority over the past few weeks. He made a staff decision and personal choices that benefited himself and jeopardized the integrity of the football program.
"In short, coach Petrino engaged in a pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior designed to deceive me and members of the athletic staff both before and after the motorcycle accident. He used athletic department funds to hire for his staff a person with whom he had had an inappropriate relationship. He engaged in reckless and unacceptable behavior that put his relationship in the national spotlight."
Long, who took several emotional pauses while talking about the effect the incident and Petrino's firing had on the football team, read an eight-minute statement where he discussed how he felt duped by Petrino. Long did not know about Petrino's relationship with Dorrell prior to last Thursday when he placed Petrino on administrative leave. He especially felt misled when Petrino picked Dorrell to serve as his student-athlete development coordinator out of 159 applicants and Long signed off on the hire.
"Coach Petrino knowingly misled the athletics department and the circumstances related to his accident," Long said. "He had multiple opportunities over a four-day period to be forthcoming with me. He chose not to. He treated the news media and the general public in a similar manner.
"Coach Petrino's relationship with Miss Dorrell gave her an unfair and undisclosed advantage for a position on coach Petrino's football staff."
Long met with Petrino and then informed him of his decision in writing, per the rules in Petrino's contract. Dorrell remains on staff though her future is uncertain. Long refused to disclose much about her status saying that it was a personnel matter. Since Petrino was fired for cause, he loses his $3.6 million contract and now has to find a way to repair his personal life and an undoubtedly strained relationship with his wife and four children.
Petrino issued a statement shortly after Long's press conference:
The simplest response I have is: I'm sorry. These two words seem very inadequate. But that is my heart. All I have been able to think about is the number of people I've let down by making selfish decisions. I've taken a lot of criticism in the past. Some deserved, some not deserved. This time, I have no one to blame but myself.
I chose to engage in an improper relationship. I also made several poor decisions following the end of that relationship and in the aftermath of the accident. I accept full responsibility for what has happened.
I'm sure you heard Jeff Long's reasons for termination. There was a lot of information shared. Given the decision that has been made, this is not the place to debate Jeff's view of what happened. In the end, I put him in the position of having to sort through my mistakes and that is my fault.
I have hurt my wife Becky and our four children. I've let down the University of Arkansas, my team, coaching staff and everyone associated with the Razorback football program. As a result of my personal mistakes, we will not get to finish our goal of building a championship program. [...]
My sole focus at this point is trying to repair the damage I've done to my family. They did not ask for any of this and deserve better. I am committed to being a better husband, father and human being as a result of this and will work each and every day to prove that to my family, friends and others.
The "inappropriate relationship" came to light after Petrino was involved in a motorcycle accident on April 1. That evening, Petrino's family released a statement that he was the only one involved in the accident. Petrino reiterated that during a press conference the following Tuesday. However, the police report released Thursday revealed Petrino had a female passenger — 25-year-old Dorrell — at the time of the crash. Dorrell, a former Arkansas volleyball player, was not injured in the accident and accompanied Petrino to Fayetteville before handing him over to Capt. Lance King, who took him to the hospital.
Petrino suffered four broken ribs and a broken vertebra. Dorrell was unharmed.
Firing Petrino was a tough decision for Long and he acknowledged the move would probably not sit well with some Arkansas fans. Petrino was 34-17 since he was hired in 2008 and was 21-5 in the past two seasons. The Razorbacks just finished their first 11-win season since 1977 and finished No. 5 in both the Associated Press and Coaches Poll.
But it had to be done. As Long laid out the pattern of deception that spanned not only the past week but during Dorrell's hiring process as well, it was clear that Petrino had been playing his athletic director and had little respect for his authority.
"No single individual is bigger than the team, the Razorback football program or the University of Arkansas" Long said.
Long said the search for a new coach would begin Tuesday evening, but finding the right coach to take over might be tough with just about four months remaining until camp starts.
Several names have been kicked around, including Arkansas State's Gus Malzahn and UAB's Garrick McGee, who both have Arkansas ties, but both also just accepted their jobs this offseason. Assistant head coach/linebackers coach Taver Johnson will remain in charge through the rest of spring football while Long decides the next step.
One option, and possibly the best option, would be to keep Johnson in charge for the season and wait to hire the best coach Long can find. No reason to settle on someone. Petrino has made Arkansas a great destination. It should start the season in the Top 10 and will be a contender in the SEC. The boat has already been rocked, no use overturning at this point. Ohio State and North Carolina followed similar paths and ended up with the head coaches they wanted after a year with an interim.
The Arkansas community probably won't get over this quickly, but Long is not the bad guy here. As Petrino stated, he brought all this on himself and even knew that his relationship with Dorrell would eventually be revealed yet still chose to lie about it to his family, bosses and supporters. There's no doubt Long feels betrayed by a coach he celebrated just a few months ago. So, in that regard, he probably feels the same way many Arkansas fans do.
"I know there's disappointment, I have disappointment," Long said. "I expected them to be disappointed but then in the end I hope that they'll rally around the student-athletes in this program who are quite outstanding. I hope they will rally behind them and we have an opportunity for a very successful year next year."
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