April's fool

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Thursday, December 27, 2012
Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino speaks during a news conference in Fayetteville on Tuesday, April 3, 2012, after being released from a hospital.
Photo by The Associated Press
Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino speaks during a news conference in Fayetteville on Tuesday, April 3, 2012, after being released from a hospital.

— Bobby Petrino’s meteoric rise as Arkansas’ football coach crashed and burned after an April 1 joy ride gone awry.

Athletic Director Jeff Long fired Petrino on April 10 after an athletic department investigation turned up details that Petrino had “engaged in a pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior... before and after the motorcycle accident.” Bobby Petrino’s April Fools face plant will live on as a defining moment in his career, a pivotal chapter in Arkansas football history and as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ’s 2012 Sports Story of the Year.

Petrino was riding high at the time of his infamous Harley-Davidson wreck, both financially and professionally.

He was locked into a longterm contract with the University of Arkansas, a mega-deal with matching buyouts starting at $18 million a year, and was set to earn an average of at least $3.5 million per season through 2017.

Petrino had led the Razorbacks to a 21-5 record over two seasons, a stretch that included the school’s first Bowl Championship Series berth, and a No. 5 final ranking in the Associated Press poll after beating Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl to finish off the 2011 season.

He helped shape the Razorbacks into a hot brand, soaring into the top 10 in value among the nation’s college football programs and luring big donations that helped finance a $35 millionplus football operations facility.

The success might have gone to Petrino’s head.

During the fall of 2011, he struck up a relationship with 25-year-old Jessica Dorrell, a striking blonde and former Arkansas volleyball player who served as a fund-raiser for the Razorback Foundation.

Petrino began engaging in risky behavior with Dorrell, traveling to Razorback Club functions with her by his side, and eventually their friendship turned into an affair. A university investigation later revealed he had provided Dorrell $20,000, which she used to purchase a car, and showed he capitalized on his considerable influence to make a critical mistake injudgment, hiring her as the football program’s on-campus recruiting coordinator under his supervision.

On that fateful Sunday, after spending time at his house on Beaver Lake with his wife, Becky, Petrino took Dorrell for a spin on his custom Harley. Brazenly, he rode without a helmet.

Petrino ended up in a pile of roadside timber off Arkansas Highway 16 in rural Madison County after he lost control of the motorcycle and tried to lay it down. Dorrell flagged down a passing car, the bleeding Petrino jumped in it to be whisked back to Fayetteville, and the ensuing investigation by the Arkansas State Police exposed the affair and Petrino’s attempts tocover it up.

Two days after the wreck, Petrino showed up for a news conference he personally arranged prior to a spring practice. He was wearing a neck brace and had significant facial abrasions. Athletic Director Jeff Long placed him on suspension three days laterwhen a state police report confirmed Dorrell’s presence in the wreck, and fired him April 10.

Long’s characterization of the actions of Petrino, who imperiled his relationship with Long by taking hours to tell him about the wreck and failing to disclose Dorrell’s presence until he knew the police report was imminent, was succinct.

“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,” Long said in announcing Petrino’s dismissal. “He engaged in reckless and unacceptable behavior that put his relationship in the national spotlight.”

The public humiliation was such that Petrino has not since spoken with Arkansas media. He agreed to sit down for an interview in August with ESPN’s Joe Schad on his home turf in Montana to let the college football world know he was back on the market.

While there was interest in him at Auburn, one of his many former employers,after Gene Chizik’s firing in November, Petrino finally received his invitation back into college coaching from Western Kentucky, a Sun Belt school that began playing on the FBS level in 2008. His 75-26 career record and two BCS bowl berths in eight seasons put him atop Western Kentucky Athletic Director Todd Stewart’s wish list.

Petrino, who sold twohomes in Northwest Arkansas but still maintained a residence in Rogers much of 2012, said he attended eight months of counseling with Becky in order to maintain their marriage.

“I’ve always had a cardinal rule of know the difference between right and wrong and choose to do what’s right,” Petrino said at his introductory news conference at Western Kentucky. “I didn’t follow that. I made that mistake. I knew the difference between right and wrong, and I chose the wrong avenue to go.”

Asked if he was satisfied that Petrino had overcome the character flaws that had wrecked his Arkansas career, Stewart said, “What it comes down to is he made a big mistake. He acknowledges that, he’s taken ownership of that, and he’s paid a heavy price for it.

“But this is the United States of America, and we’re a country of second chances. I was confident after talking with him and talking to other people that he deserves a second chance, and we are more than happy to give it to him.”

Sports, Pages 15 on 12/27/2012