Whose golden handcuffs? 

We go to press awaiting news from University of Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long on a decision about Razorback football coach Bobby Petrino's future.

Long put Petrino on leave, with pay, after learning Petrino had lied to the university and public about a key fact of his April 1 motorcycle crash. He was not alone. He was accompanied by Jessica Dorrell, 25, whom Petrino had recently hired as a $55,700 football player "co-coordinator." She stages recruiting visits and provides other assistance to football players.

Petrino said an "inappropriate" relationship in his past explained his initial lack of truth about the wreck. Was this a reference to serial impropriety in his life? Or was it a carefully crafted way to say any impropriety with Dorrell pre-dated his hiring of her as a staff member, perhaps expecting the situation that now exists.

The employment relationship is the factor that holds most peril for Petrino. In deciding Petrino's fate, every single employee at the University of Arkansas will view the action in the context of a single question: "What if that had been me or my boss?"

I expect Petrino to be retained as football coach. I say this without rancor. Sports long ago stopped being a supplement to a college education — the sound body to go with a sound mind. It is big business. It is a commercial branding tool. It requires huge sums of money and the sums are generated by winning. A decision on leadership change has to be viewed first through those corporate goals. Petrino is a winner. Fan and donor enthusiasm is high. A $40 million building project dependent on money flow is underway.

How many major corporations would fire a CEO for sexual infidelity or attempting to keep it a secret? How many would fire a CEO for dalliance with an employee, rather than making that problematic employee go away?

Firing Petrino guarantees a disruption in football and fund-raising. Jeff Long, who is facing a career decision in this, MUST consider that reality. And if he chooses to retain Petrino, he must do so in a way to offer some balm to the minority who believe a football coach should be a model of probity and should not fiddle around, lie about it or hire girlfriends, current or former.

The talk among insiders is that Petrino could pay a financial penalty — a loss of pay and perks in a contract worth up to $4 million a year with incentives — as an alternative to firing. The contract also could be rewritten to broaden the University of Arkansas's ability to punish or dismiss Petrino.

You get in these messes by investing too much in one human being, emphasis on human. Petrino's contract, for example, gives him near total power over football staff selection and hiring. The athletic director is allowed to sign off on his choices, but approval "shall not be withheld unreasonably."

As it stands, Petrino and the UA are locked in golden handcuffs. Either owes $18 million if one tries to ditch the other. These handcuffs are a product of Petrino's inconstancy (some would say dishonesty) at previous jobs in Louisville and Atlanta. Ironic that the university now must assess its exposure should it demand to be unlocked, rather than Petrino. The university's worry about Petrino exacting a huge payment seems overblown, however. The contract says he can be fired for conduct contrary to the "character and responsibilities" of a head football coach or actions that negatively affect the university's reputation. Could anybody argue the last week or so has been good for the university?


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