FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The scandal surrounding Bobby Petrino has divided Razorbacks fans, with many supporting the embattled Arkansas coach.
Petrino was put on paid leave last week after he didn’t tell his boss right away that a 25-year-old female football program employee was riding with him during an April 1 motorcycle accident. The 51-year-old Petrino, who is married with four children, also admitted to an inappropriate relationship.
Kevin Trainor, a spokesman for athletic director Jeff Long, said the investigation was “ongoing” Monday. Punishments could include a suspension or even firing a coach who has put up a 21-5 record the past two seasons.
Also on Monday, a person familiar with the investigation confirmed Petrino’s “previous inappropriate relationship” was with Jessica Dorrell, the former Arkansas volleyball player with whom Petrino was riding with during his motorcycle crash on a rural two-land road southeast of Fayetteville.
Petrino was noticeably vague in the wording about the relationship in his statement last Thursday, and the person spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In the meantime, radio waves and Internet message boards are abuzz with talk of Petrino’s fate. Some fans want Petrino ousted while others are encouraging Long to keep the coach.
Bo Mattingly, a sports radio host on 92.1 FM-The Ticket in northwest Arkansas and syndicated throughout the state, said he has fielded a steady mix of pro- and anti-Petrino callers since last Thursday, when a state police report revealed Dorrell’s presence on the motorcycle during the accident.
Mattingly said his callers are torn between emotions, with many feeling that Arkansas “shouldn’t put up with this” and those who believe “we can’t do any better for a coach.” He said the situation has put Long in an “impossible” situation, and that he’s had boosters on both sides of the debate tell him they’ll pull their support — whether Arkansas keeps Petrino or not.
“Most people acknowledge that it’s a bad deal, but the majority of calls we get are people trying to come up with a way to keep him, rationalizing in their own mind,” Mattingly said. “They are coming up with ways Jeff Long could discipline him but still keep him.”
A group of Petrino backers even started a Facebook page called “Team Save Coach Petrino” and rallied Monday night on the Arkansas campus to show their support for the coach. The group had approximately 7,000 members Monday morning before passing 17,000 by evening.
The page encouraged fans to email and call Long to offer their support for Petrino, closing its opening statement with “SAVE OUR COACH!”
Approximately 200 supporters showed up in The Gardens, a popular tailgating spot prior to football games on the Arkansas campus. Razorbacks T-shirts, sandals and hats were tossed into the crowd, which did its best game day impression by calling the Hogs.
Matt Couch, one of the organizers of the rally, was pleased with the turnout and hoped to influence Long’s decision in favor of keeping Petrino. The Rogers, Ark., native said he graduated from the school and is a football booster, admitting the group would “probably not” have come together had Petrino had less success last season — when the Razorbacks finished 11-2 and ranked No. 5.
“We’re not condoning what he did morally,” Couch said. “We are disappointed in him, but he’s still our football coach and no one’s perfect.
“… I wouldn’t ask him for marriage counseling, but at the same time we’re supportive of him and we want him to do well.”
Another Arkansas fan, Jimmie Wilson, and her husband, Steve, drove an hour from Fort Smith, Ark., to attend the rally and support Petrino. Jimmie Wilson said she didn’t feel bad for Dorrell, saying “I haven’t heard her story, but she made a choice.”
Wilson also said she would have attended the rally, even if the Razorbacks hadn’t been as successful last season.
“Our program was going down, down, down,” Wilson said. “When he got here, he’s just brought it back to the level it should be. I think we have a really good chance this year to be at the top.”
Petrino is intensely private, but his hiring in late 2007 unified the fan base in the wake of Houston Nutt’s polarizing departure from the school for Mississippi. Nutt’s last few seasons at Arkansas were filled with turmoil, with fans hiring planes to fly “Fire Nutt” banners prior to games and some even requesting the coach’s cellphone records via the state’s Freedom of Information Act to see what Nutt was up to.
Not everyone is giving unconditional support to Petrino, of course.
Rex Nelson, a former communications director in the governor’s office, blogged about the Petrino dilemma on Monday.
“It turns out we have an out-of-stater we lured to Arkansas with big bucks who produced results but failed to build relationships, grew in arrogance, thrived on secrecy, always thought he was the smartest person in the room, treated some people with contempt and lied to cover up mistakes,” Nelson wrote. “What an icon he could have been. What a tragedy for all concerned.”
Nelson said he had no problem with a rally in support of Petrino, adding that Long has legal obligations to consider, not the coach’s popularity. Nelson also called the scandal and decision a “no-win situation” for Long, who must choose between keeping a highly successful coach who lied to him or firing one of the top fundraisers in school history.
“From a national perception standpoint, it’s terrible,” Nelson said in an interview. “But those things can be overcome. We were in the middle of the Houston Nutt mess a few years ago, and here the program is now with 21 victories over the past two seasons. That was overcome, and this I’m confident will be overcome also in time.”