Arkansas has been a team on the rise under coach Bobby Petrino. The Razorbacks have 21 victories in their last two years and have closed the gap on Alabama and LSU in the SEC West. Although Arkansas has some question marks on defense and with a rebuilt receiving corps heading into the 2012 season, it has been touted as a possible darkhorse national title contender, especially with the Crimson Tide and Tigers visiting Fayetteville.
But is all of Petrino’s progress at Arkansas about to fall apart? Petrino’s motorcycle wreck on Sunday was a serious incident, but the story took a turn for the worse after it was revealed he had a 25-year-old female passenger. Jessica Dorrell – also an Arkansas athletic department employee – was mentioned in the police report as a passenger, despite Petrino insisting he was riding solo.
As a result of failing to notify athletic director Jeff Long that Dorrell was a passenger, Petrino has been placed on administrative leave and it’s uncertain if he will return to Arkansas in 2012.
Although Petrino’s inappropriate relationship with Dorrell is certainly not the news Arkansas needs at this time, the bigger issue is lying to your athletic director. Had Petrino come clean from the beginning, the damage would have been bad, but it’s always the cover-up that is worse in any incident.
Long will review Petrino’s status, but there is no indication on when a decision on his future with the school will be determined. Assistant Taver Johnson, in his first season with Arkansas, will serve as the interim coach for now.
What does this mean for Arkansas in 2012?
Right now, it’s really too early to tell how it affects the Razorbacks’ chances of winning the SEC West. Most early predictions had Arkansas pegged for third place in the division, but a top-10 team nationally. Without Petrino, the Razorbacks are probably still picked to finish third, but could slip to the 15-25 range in most preseason polls.
Although Petrino made a huge mistake in lying to his boss and having an inappropriate relationship with a member of the athletic department, the odds seem to be favorable that he does return to the sideline in 2012.
Long could choose to suspend Petrino for a couple of games, which would certainly have an impact on Arkansas’ national title hopes with a game against Alabama on Sept. 15. Another possibility is a suspension that lasts the spring and summer, but Petrino would return in time for fall practice.
Even if Petrino returns to Arkansas, there’s no question his reputation is going to take another hit. Petrino has always been questioned and criticized for his commitment, as he spent only one season with the Falcons before bolting to Arkansas and many around the SEC haven’t forgotten the infamous jetgate incident with Auburn in 2003.
Considering the commitment issue could come up again, Arkansas and Petrino agreed to a long-term contract last May, which had a large buyout and prevented him from leaving for another SEC school. Armed with a long-term contract and a program that is ready to challenge for the SEC West title every year, Petrino appeared to be entrenched in Fayetteville for the next 10 years and finally ready to erase the criticism of being a job hopper.
However, thanks to the motorcycle wreck on Sunday night and the revelations on Thursday night, Petrino and Arkansas are facing an uncertain future. Petrino has been very successful in four years with the Razorbacks, leading the team to a 34-17 record with an appearance in the Sugar Bowl. Being a successful coach certainly doesn't hurt Petrino's chances of returning to Fayetteville, as the conversation could be quite different if this was a coach with a 10-20 record facing the same type of issues.
Although Petrino is going to be heavily scrutinized (and rightfully so), the focus now shifts back to Long and the athletic department. Can Petrino still be a successful coach with this in the rearview mirror? Could this hurt Petrino on the recruiting trail? Those are just two of the questions Long and Arkansas have to answer over the next couple of weeks. 2012 was shaping up to be a year where the Razorbacks could contend for the SEC title, but now there's a cloud of uncertainty hanging over this team.