Bobby Petrino is a really good college football coach. So good, Arkansas fans look at Petrino as a near-deity. Fans put a billboard up along I-40 in Morrilton, thanking him for bringing winning back to the program. When Petrino says the Razorbacks need more money to fund facilities, fans break out their wallets. One of the hardest things Razorback fans have had to deal with since Petrino was named head coach in December 2007, is that outside the Hog fan base, Petrino is very unpopular.
Before Thursday, it was hard for some Arkansas fans to admit Petrino has any flaws, but the truth is, he's really, really, excruciatingly awful at public relations. He doesn't seem to care. Most of the time, it's been ok that he doesn't. But there do come days, like with this motorcycle episode, some PR awareness would go a long way.
Accurate or not, the general perception among the national college football landscape is that Petrino is a jerk. They point to the way he left Atlanta, the clandestine meeting with Auburn boosters while Tommy Tuberville was still coach in 2003, and for reportedly looking for other jobs while he was coaching Louisville. There have even been smaller flares since he became head coach at Arkansas like being blamed for the firing of a reporter who wore a Florida cap at his press conference, cursing at Les Miles from across the field in the waning moments of the 2011 loss in Baton Rouge, and the many times he's been seen cursing referees and players on the sideline. He's rarely shown a hint of remorse for these things.
Because he's gone 21-5 over the last two years, Arkansas fans are able to justify all of that behavior to themselves. "He was miserable in Atlanta because of factors beyond his control, and since when has loyalty been a requirement to be in the NFL?" "That reporter should've had the professional awareness not to wear competitor's gear! Miles shouldn't have tried to run up the score! He deserved it!"
All those points may be true. And they might make Razorback fans sleep better at night. But they don't matter to the general public. For example, the most frequent characteristic people label Petrino with is that he's a job-hopper with no loyalty to any school. In December 2010, Arkansas signed Petrino to a contract extension that featured a buyout of up to $18 million. A number that shocked several national media members. But as that news began to die down, people continued to have that perception. We found out other coaches use this label to negatively recruit against Arkansas, and did so with recruits such as Dorial Green-Beckham. One aspect of this motorcycle ordeal to keep an eye on is its effect on recruiting. For a program that recruits heavily on a national scale, his preceding reputation going into homes could have a huge impact.
Not only did Arkansas administrators and fans defend Petrino through each of these incidents, but they also legitimately believed the best in him. They believed that all of the national people were wrong. That people were seeing what they wanted to see, which is whatever would generate the most web traffic - truth be damned. But now, that trust is fractured. Petrino lied to the same administrators, fans, and media who defended him while he was being roasted everywhere else.
There will be several fans that will want Petrino to remain head coach and will continue to defend him no matter what happens. But for the first time in Petrino's tenure at Arkansas, he's likely lost a significant amount of support. There may be some casual fans who have a harder time justifying spending a few hundred dollars to come to Fayetteville for a game weekend, or just to pay $55 for tickets to the Louisiana-Monroe game.
From a PR standpoint, the smart thing would've been to admit the relationship at the earliest possible opportunity, which could have been the Tuesday press conference. This is what I like to call the Letterman Method. A few years back, David Letterman admitted on his show to sexual relationships with members of his staff. It was before the media was able to get ahold of it in the police report, the outrage died quickly. If Petrino had come clean earlier, there would still be the ethical dilemma of hiring Ms. Dorrell, but the relationship between Petrino and Long wouldn't be as damaged as it is (and if you've seen Long's Thursday night press conference, he's clearly hurt), and fewer fans would likely be upset.
He also wouldn't have lied to the media. That might not seem like a big deal. Media members are given press releases filled with polished crap on a frequent basis. And when Petrino is still as popular as he is in Arkansas, it's harder for reporters to have as much influence. But if Petrino does keep his job, as much as we don't like to think about it, Arkansas won't always be a top-10 team. The Razorbacks won't win 10 games each year. At some point, he'll need the support of the people he lied to this week. He'll need a column supporting him or a message board post defending him, and it may not be there. Yes, reporters are supposed to be objective, but pure objectivity is impossible and reporters, like everyone else, don't like being lied to. And fans won't need as much convincing to turn against him if they don't trust him.
Regardless of what happens to Petrino in the future, as long as he's a football coach, it would benefit him to consider public perception more closely. Virtually all of his issues have come off the field. Winning games will certainly help his cause, but he'll have to connect with public on a deeper level. There may be nothing he can do to repair his reputation on the national stage, but Arkansas fans want to support him. I don't think most fans really care about the promotion and the ethical dilemma that proposes, even if that is the main issue regarding his employment at Arkansas. When most fans think of this incident, they will think of the affair and the lie. If he's able to keep his job, it's that relationship with the public he'll have to mend. He'll have to care about it to do it.