Petrino couldn't help but hit the road yet again
ATLANTA -- The money isn't any greener in Fayetteville, Ark., than it is here, and in his new position, Bobby Petrino will actually earn less of it. Which apparently is fine, given that he will deal more in Razorbacks than in greenbacks.
But for Petrino, who Tuesday afternoon resigned as head coach of the hapless Atlanta Falcons to accept the same position at the University of Arkansas, the grass is always far greener in someone else's backyard (or on some other team's football field) than the particular patch of turf upon which he is currently standing.
Petrino could glance across the fence at the most barren front yard in the neighborhood and he would manage to somehow view it through his special prism as a meticulously manicured fairway at Augusta National.
And so the move Tuesday, while stunning in its timing, was nonetheless altogether predictable virtually from the moment Petrino accepted the Atlanta job 11 months ago.
By definition, football coaches are movers and shakers, and Petrino certainly fills the job description on both counts. Some suitor contacts him or his agent, Russ Campbell, and Petrino starts shaking with anticipation at the mere notion of moving on. The old adage about how coaches are hired to be fired? Hire Bobby Petrino, and you're just adopting a vagabond, a guy with his ear always to the ground, his eye forever on the next job, his resume updated daily and the playbook already stashed in a briefcase.
Petrino On Move
Bobby Petrino has been on the move for 15 years, with his four-year stint in Louisville the longest.
|1984||Weber St.||Grad. asst.|
|1987-88||Weber St.||WR/TE coach|
|1992-93||Arizona St.||QB coach|
|1995-97||Utah St.||Off. coord./QB|
|1999-2000||Jacksonville (NFL)||QB coach|
|2001||Jacksonville (NFL)||Off. coord.|
|2007||Atlanta (NFL)||Head coach|
Once a mercenary, it's hard to change stripes, although not nearly as difficult to change addresses. And the history of Petrino, one not even his staunchest apologists can explain away, is that he is forever in pursuit of the next entry on his already lengthy resume.
As delineated in his biography, his longest stint in any job was the four seasons he spent as head coach at Louisville.
Given the circumstances that transpired here -- losing quarterback Michael Vick, then losing the trust and confidence of his players, and finally losing 10 of 13 games Atlanta has played in his first and only season -- Petrino has some defense for his actions. The Falcons, as currently comprised, are not the team he envisioned. The job -- which deteriorated after the departure of the quarterback whom he felt would expand the boundaries of his creative offense -- was not the one for which Petrino signed on.
The hand he was dealt became, no doubt about it, a loser. And like every coach, Bobby Petrino abhors losing, especially when it appears that winning consistently is hardly on the horizon.
And so there is some small part of even his most vocal detractors on Atlanta's sports-talk radio shows Tuesday night that must, on some level, be able to commiserate with what Petrino went through the past several months. At the same time, his departure would be far more palatable were his words and his actions -- and, to some extent, the public facade of the Atlanta organization and owner Arthur Blank -- not so disingenuous.
The flirtation with the Arkansas position didn't just begin in the past few days. It had been percolating for nearly two weeks before Petrino or Campbell, or maybe both men, phoned university officials about 2 p.m. Tuesday to ramp up the discussions. Not more than three hours later, despite reports that Petrino and Arkansas were still negotiating at that point, a framework was already in place to make him the new Razorbacks coach.
One has to wonder when Blank, first left without his biggest drawing card and now about to embark on his third coaching search in four years, became aware of Petrino's interest in the Arkansas job. There had been rumors in this city for months that Petrino, already weary of the pro game and with mutiny festering in his locker room, where players flat-out didn't like the guy, was plotting his escape back to the college ranks.
The most popular conspiracy theory had Petrino pursuing the LSU job if Les Miles left to fill the Michigan vacancy. Another had Petrino eyeing the Auburn position if incumbent Tommy Tuberville departed. Remember, only a few years ago, in a surreptitious liaison that proved almost as embarrassing to Petrino as to Auburn officials, he met with school athletic executives who were scheming to dump Tuberville, which never happened.
Petrino and Blank, and certainly the owner far more in recent days, did their best to quell the rumors. Ironically, the whisper they could never quite kill off was the one connecting Petrino to the Arkansas job. In fact, a very high-ranking Falcons official apprised this columnist last week that he was convinced Petrino was "chasing" the Arkansas position. And the team official offered it with such certainty and authority that I mentioned it in the "Tip Sheet" notes last Friday.
At the Monday night game here, ESPN colleague Sal Paolantonio, asked if I felt Petrino would still be with the team in 2008. And I told him, no, because I believed there was too much smoke to the Arkansas rumor. Less than 24 hours later, the smoke was an inferno, and the Falcons were burned again.
In retrospect, the marriage of the Falcons and Petrino was bad, a flawed coupling between a franchise seeking a new face and a coach whose ego all but mandated that he attempt to transfer his college success to the highest level of the game. Because of the loss of Vick, it is impossible to assess Petrino's impact, because he never had a chance to make his offense work with a fully staffed contingent of playmakers. In virtually every game this season, Petrino was outmanned from a personnel standpoint.
That said, as was evidenced again Monday night, he was also outcoached. On each of the three occasions on which I saw the Falcons play in person this season, Petrino looked like a guy in over his head. Personnel deficiencies aside, his game management skills were lacking and his people skills were far worse. It's become a truism in the NFL that, no matter how good you are with X's and O's, you'd better have some component of your makeup that compels players to want to play hard for you.
Among the players, who regarded Petrino as a coach with poor communications skills, no one wanted to throw themselves on the grenade.
No matter the circumstances, no matter how one sugarcoats it, that was Petrino's fault. But give the coach credit for this: In fewer than one full season -- less than half the time it took Nick Saban, who had more NFL experience as an assistant than Petrino had enjoyed as an aide in the league -- Petrino realized that it wasn't a good fit. A brilliant coach at the college level, he will have a chance in Fayetteville, where there are incredible human and material resources, to be a brilliant coach once again.
As for the Falcons, well, they are reeling. And while the franchise's dire circumstances aren't fully the fault of Blank and general manager Rich McKay, they must share some of the culpability. Blank became a billionaire, at least presumably in part, because he made savvy decisions, could read people, hired terrific lieutenants at The Home Depot to enact his design.
Characteristically, men grow wealthy by being excellent judges of character, but Blank failed to see through the tawdry side of Vick and the itinerant bent to Petrino. When the Falcons hired Petrino, the choice was praised by a lot of NFL personnel directors and general managers, many of whom predicted to me that he would be a successful coach in the league.
And so Blank, it seems, wasn't the only one who misread Petrino. Unfortunately for Blank, whose good intentions and desire to win keep blowing up in his face, he's the only one who hired him. Turns out that maybe Blank is better at finding people to manage the drywall department or to order hammers than he is at finding someone to manage his football team and bark orders at his players.
Before the Monday night loss to New Orleans, yet another low point for a franchise that always seems to find a sub-basement every time one thinks it has hit rock bottom, Blank met with some media members to discuss the sentence handed down to Vick earlier in the day, and to philosophize on the future of the team.
During the brief session, he referred to Petrino as "the CEO" of the franchise, a term that confused some media types because the coach carried no such title.
But less than 24 hours later, the CEO term seems to make some sense, if one assumes that it's shorthand for "Changes Employers Often," which is what Bobby Petrino does. And what Falcons management should have known is in his blood.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.