Mitchell: The Arkansas business decision
UA's Jeff Long
You may not wish to think college football is big business, and that is your prerogative. Arkansas AD Jeff Long, however, is not afforded that luxury. He is Arkansas football's CEO…and in firing Bobby Petrino, Long made the wrong business decision. Not just wrong, but unnecessary, and far more likely than not to the financial detriment of his organization.
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb
This article is not a debate on the behavior of ex-Arkansas head football coach Bobby Petrino, whose actions and weaknesses have been readily chronicled. Rather, it will outline the subsequent decisions of Petrino's boss, Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Jeff Long, and whether his haste for resolution in the Petrino affair placed the University of Arkansas and its sports programs unnecessarily in a precarious situation.
First, let us return to the state of all-things-Razorback prior to "Motorcycle Sunday". In large part given the remarkable success of the football program under Petrino's stewardship, the university and Long had embarked on an auspicious development plan. Long had signed off on a Football Operations/Parking infrastructure earmarked at $40M. The omnipresent Reynolds Foundation had agreed to contribute $10M, and others had promised contributions as well. But construction costs were starting to climb, raising some concerns.
Additionally, Long and the university had unveiled a Master Plan growth/renovation project for the entire Arkansas sports complex: ~$320M for new softball facilities, a baseball indoor practice facility, premium seating for the football stadium, to name but a few of the many ambitious projects. To fund this wish list, the university would have to rely heavily on the football program's continued success.
With so much riding on the line, you would think any decision around the football program would be done cautiously, with considerable reflection and objectivity. Certainly with little or no haste.
ROBERT P. PETRINO
Bobby Petrino is a jerk. So say many of the men who have worked for or around him in the past. But these failings were readily apparent to Long when he hired Petrino…sneaking in the middle of the night, and NFL season, to woo Petrino away from the Atlanta Falcons.
Petrino may be an ass of the first degree, but as if his brain took neurons away from the area that manages personal relationships and deposited them where football strategy is created, he is a football savant. Based on his actions over the years, that seems to be his driving purpose. Long knew this, and was more aware than most of Petrino's extensive track record of burning bridges and irritating people. Long hired Petrino because it's a business and his school needed to win football games (Read: raise money), which Petrino did in spectacular fashion.
No coach in the college profession today does more with less than Petrino. Arkansas is hardly a hotbed of top-flight high school football talent. Indeed, during his years with the Razorbacks, Petrino's average (if subjective) national recruiting rankings were somewhere in the mid-20s. Perhaps higher. Yet Petrino managed to do what no coach with regular recruiting classes outside the top ten could – build his program in short order to be a national contender.
With that success came money – boatloads of it. No FBS football program grew more in revenue intake during the Petrino years than the University of Arkansas. To a material degree, and sensing this to be a trend, the university began obligating itself, if not directly than indirectly, to construction projects that would otherwise be onerous to see to completion…without the money generated, again directly or indirectly, by the football program.
Throughout this time Petrino continued to alienate people within and without the program. Influential boosters, members of the Athletic Department...even, and perhaps as importantly, influential members of the Cotton Bowl.
Arkansas has a long and storied association with the regionally powerful bowl, going back to the Razorback's Southwest Conference days. We spoke with several within the Cotton Bowl ecosystem who commented both sharply and negatively about interactions with coach Petrino while he was at Arkansas. Such was the case that the relationship between the legendary bowl and one of its oldest partner universities was allegedly strained, no doubt adding further stress on Long, and engendering less good will for Petrino.
ENTER J.L. SMITH
With the sudden firing of Petrino, Long found himself in an easily predictable dilemma: what to do next? First, he could promote one of the popular coordinators to an interim position and play the 2012 season without a bona fide, SEC-grade head coach – a season that many felt carried legitimate promise of a national championship prior to Petrino's termination. In the process, he would burden the program with the uncertainty such a decision generates – not the least of which being a hit on recruiting.
Or he could hire a coach from outside the program, and in so doing face the firestorm of distraction that such a late season hire would create, including on-field distractions from new coaching schemes/language to potential discord among coaches…if not the very likely possibility of having to embrace an entire new staff.
Thus Long, unable to pull the trigger on either poor choice, straddled them – and in so doing only passed the buck and exacerbated the situation. J.L. Smith is not an SEC quality head coach today, and might never have been. His hire provides far more distraction than many outsiders realize, while not resolving many of the problems created by playing the season with a coordinator promoted to the role. In particular, J.L. Smith as the head coach of Arkansas is unlikely to positively impact recruiting; representing instead additional uncertainty, and as such he saddles Arkansas with a largely wasted recruiting cycle.
The coordinators, particularly those that a year ago held more authority than Smith and might have thought themselves a better option for promotion than the departed coach, could likely bristle when Smith exerts some authority – and don't kid yourself, Smith has an ego too. If not, if Smith is merely a figurehead, then he's a waste of space on an interim or any other basis – if not the ultimate distraction. How one thinks a program can compete for a national championship with a figurehead coach in a conference with Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, and Les Miles (all of whom the Hogs face in 2012) challenges reason.
If/When this program faces hardship on the field in 2012, these coordinators, having observed Long's lack of confidence in them, will likely throw Smith under the bus to protect their reputation. And who can blame them. This is likely to create further discord/distraction. At that time, Long's playbook will be to point the finger of blame at Petrino; don't let him, for this was ultimately Long's decision and his alone.
THE FIRING OF BOBBY PETRINO
Whether Long fired Petrino because of a series of interpersonal failings with the motorcycle blunder being the final straw, because of the "morality breach" of this particular incident, because Petrino lied to him when first confronted on the issue, even the specter of a potential sexual harassment lawsuit (which was as red as herrings get), all of these are irrelevant. (While no claim of sexual harassment has been filed in this situation, universities carry insurance for sexual harassment levied against their faculty, insurance we'd imagine Arkansas has used on numerous occasions over the years without terminating the faculty member involved.)
What's relevant is that firing Petrino was by far the wrong business decision, and the timing being so poor only amplifies the extent of Long's poor decision. Long's Folly.
Long acted far more quickly than the situation demanded, and for that alone he should bear responsibility when this train ultimately derails – be it quickly in the form of consecutive 3-4 loss seasons and the corresponding drop in fundraising amid a chorus of discontent, or by a death of a thousand cuts, wherein the football program sinks slowly into the mediocrity it existed in prior to Petrino's arrival.
Regardless, this was Long's decision, and Long's decision alone. He did not have to fire Petrino – he chose to fire him. Keeping Petrino as head coach would not have come easily. There might have been a lawsuit of two from his hiring Jessica Dorrell. There most certainly would have been a segment of the population that, demanding his firing, would have been deeply, and likely loudly, disappointed. Long would have also faced the hammer of righteous indignation from a mostly disconnected national media who would have lambasted him for succumbing to "football over morality". However, there was likely an even larger population of the Arkansas family that didn't care – for whom a protracted suspension and material pay cut would have sufficed as punishment, along with the obvious public humiliation.
After all, it's not like Petrino was faulted for creating Miami U. West on his watch, or worse, Penn State South. He had a public, personal failing. Ostensibly for that reason, he was terminated for cause – regardless of the financial obligations the University of Arkansas has riding on the success of its football program.
The University of Arkansas is an educational institution, most certainly, but the football program is big business. Period. You may not wish to think so, and that is your prerogative. Jeff Long, however, is not afforded that luxury. He is its CEO…and in firing Bobby Petrino, Jeff Long made the wrong business decision. Not just wrong, but unnecessary, and far more likely than not to the financial detriment of his organization. For years to come.
Follow Russ at SEC Media Days @russmitchellcfb