Mitchell: Petrino Wrong Hog to Blame
Arkansas' Jeff Long introducing J.L. Smith
Past the argument of whether Arkansas AD Jeff Long had to or chose to fire Bobby Petrino, to blame the fired coach now for the many poor decisions made after his termination or the magnitude of Saturday’s loss to ULM shows a gross lack of football knowledge, and is at best naïve and at worst manipulative
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb
No matter how much you love your job, there are often moments in your career when you must do something for work where you think to yourself, “Really? I can't believe I'm wasting time on this with all that other work to do.”
For me, this is one of those times.
Bobby Petrino is NOT responsible for the train wreck that rolled over the Arkansas football program on Saturday, September 8. You see, Bobby had already been fired. If anything, he left this Razorback football program in a position far greater than it's state upon his arrival. Petrino is no more responsible for the abject disaster of Saturday night than he’s responsible for the hiring of John L Smith as his replacement, or any of the string of other poor decisions made after his firing.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
First, his personal failings notwithstanding, Petrino did not ask to be fired. That was the choice of his boss, Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Jeff Long. Not an easy choice. Not a choice without severe consequences in both directions, and not a choice we envy. But it was a choice nonetheless; one that comes with the “BOSS” nameplate, as we wrote during SEC Media Days.
We won’t rehash that column; you can read it here and you should. Moreover, what follows here is not a composition on morality – you get enough of that on Sundays.
Suffice it to say, and as we wrote then, "You may not wish to think college football is big business, and that is your prerogative. Long, however, is not afforded that luxury. He is Arkansas football's CEO…and in firing 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."
Petrino shoulders a good portion of the responsibility for his actions and thus placing Long in the position to have to make a choice in the first place. However, Petrino's just an easy target - there are so many people involved in this soap opera, and so many poor decisions have been made in the last four years - particularly since the April firing - that to single out Petrino is sophomoric.
While few expected it in game two vs. ULM, we warned you that when the very foreseeable happened and this program cratered without Petrino, it would not take the AD and his apologists long to try and saddle Petrino with the blame. In fact, this too happened faster than I imagined –- less than 36 hours later.
IT’S THE FOOTBALL, STUPID
Long compounded his error in firing Petrino by hiring the affable John L Smith to replace him. Even at his best, Smith was never an SEC caliber coach, let alone an elite one like Petrino…and he's long since turned the page on his best. He's a charming old man, not unlike my father... a glorified caretaker. But Long's handing a man like Smith this offense was akin to giving a Ferrari to your granddad.
When the wheels came off the cart against ULM, up 28 to 7, at home, with only 30 minutes to play, Smith allowed the train to derail in front of his, and our, eyes.
I suppose Smith is Petrino's fault too. As is Smith’s leadership, attention to detail and coaching.
It's deeper than just not running the ball enough in the second half. It's deeper than the 550 yards allowed to a ULM team that hasn't a winning season since Duran Duran was relevant. It's that without Petrino, this team has but half a heart, and without quarterback Tyler Wilson, collectively it has zero.
Want clearer evidence: Arkansas’ defense was able to stop ULM on but one of seven fourth-down conversion attempts. One.
I suppose that’s Bobby’s fault too.
Now the coach in exile, Petrino is most certainly not responsible for new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes frenetic play calling that has so far surrendered – and that’s the operative word, surrendered – more than 800 yards of offense to Jackson State and University of Louisiana Monroe. 872 to be exact…and 58 points.
In years past, Petrino's dynamic offense often covered up these flaws by keeping the defense off the field. Long knew this. It's why he snuck out in the middle the night, let alone the middle of the NFL season, and stole Petrino away from the Atlanta Falcons. Flaws and warts and all.
It was Long's choice then just as it was Long's choice to fire him in April.
SPEAKING OF PINK SLIPS
How again is it that J.L. still has his job? Or Haynes. Or for that matter Paul Petrino, Arkansas’ offensive coordinator? These are the three coaches directly responsible for Saturday night's disaster, not Bobby Petrino. Coaches have been fired for a lot less. You need look no further than Houston in week one.
Indeed, the AP writers felt so profoundly about this loss that they burdened Arkansas with the infamy of perhaps the greatest drop ever in their poll.
So again, why haven’t any of these coaches been fired? Because to do so would require their boss, Jeff Long, to admit his mistake. Far easier to deflect blame to the guy out of the picture. However, no amount of regurgitated clown-like images of a bandaged Petrino in the aftermath of his ill-fated accident will take away from the reality of the poor decisions made by many in Arkansas football so far this year. Nor who is truly responsible for the poor product on the field today.
WHAT ELSE IS BOBBY’S FAULT?
The bottom line is this: Petrino’s offensive genius is the primary factor that kept this Arkansas football program not only relevant but nationally dominant for two seasons. Arkansas' run defense hasn't been in the top half of the FBS since Petrino's arrival and they play in the run-happy SEC West…yet Petrino had the Hogs ranked number three in the country in late November last season. Do you realize how ridiculous that is? Particularly when you comprehend the overall talent disparity that existed/still exists between the elites of the SEC and the Hogs?
The simple fact is Long did not HAVE to fire Petrino, he CHOSE to fire him. Does Petrino share responsibility for that eventuality? Certainly. He put his boss in a tough situation. Just like many employees throughout this world do every single day. Read the other column for more on that.
Regardless, even if you’re bold enough to act as our morale judge and ignore what was then (and is clearly now) the better business decision in lieu of your personal definition of how to apply your values of morality in a business setting for the rest of us, this season’s outcome for the Arkansas Razorbacks is still not the fault of Bobby Petrino.
Petrino left this program far better off than it was when he arrived. He shared his football wisdom with his players and staff, and now he’s gone. Despite what Long apologists would have you believe, he did not fire himself. Nor is he responsible for the slew of other poor decisions that have been made following his termination.
Petrino assembled a team that should never, under any circumstances, have lost in the fashion it did to ULM. Period.
For anybody to sit back now and blame the absent Petrino for the many poor decisions made after his termination or the magnitude of Saturday’s loss shows a gross lack of football knowledge, and is at best naïve and at worst manipulative.
Russ Mitchell is CFN's lead SEC Columnist. Follow Russ for SEC and CFB analysis @russmitchellcfb
READ MORE: Mitchell: SEC Year of the Quarterback
READ MORE: Mitchell: Arkansas Craters
READ MORE: Mitchell: Gig 'em Gators
READ MORE: Mitchell: Hail State