Bobby Petrino was on top of Arkansas' football nation when he decided to take a casual motorcycle ride on April 1. Now, many wonder how quickly Petrino and the Arkansas Razorbacks can recover from that day.
Arkansas had finished as the fifth-ranked team in the country in 2011 with an 11-2 record under his command, and the future looked even more promising. The Razorbacks were poised to make a serious run at winning the ultra-competitive SEC West division and maybe even a national championship in 2012.
Yet in a matter of minutes, that motorcycle ride took a nasty turn and Petrino went from the toast of Fayetteville to scandal-plagued and out of work. The immediate fortunes of Arkansas' promising football future also fell into question.
It all started to unravel for the 51-year-old Petrino when news broke on April Fool's Day that he had crashed his motorcycle. The news initially appeared as an elaborate prank, but his appearance the next day in a neck brace with bruises all over his face erased any doubt about the wreck.
But reports of broken ribs and cracked vertebrae suffered during the accident were only the beginning for Petrino and Arkansas. A police report of the crash indicated that 25-year-old Jessica Dorrell, a recently hired development coordinator for the football program, was riding on the back of Petrino's motorcycle at the time.
It soon transpired that the pair had carried on an inappropriate relationship for more than seven months and that Petrino had given Dorrell $20,000 under the table and hired her over 158 other applicants for the position, including some more qualified for the job.
The scandal left both Petrino and Dorrell jobless and brought former Arkansas special teams coordinator John L. Smith, who had recently accepted a job at Weber State, back into the fold as Arkansas' interim head coach.
Six weeks have passed since Petrino's ill-fated ride, but the effects of the crash on the Arkansas football program are just becoming apparent.
Effects on the Football Program
The Razorbacks were nearly a consensus preseason Top 10 for 2012 with Petrino, and that shouldn't change much with Smith. The former Louisville and Michigan State coach doesn't possess the offensive creativity of Petrino, but he's familiar with the players and is unlikely to shake things up too much.
Arkansas will likely run a similar offense under Smith as it did under Petrino, and the hope is that there isn't much of a drop-off from a team that averaged 36.8 points per game and 300.7 passing yards per game last season.
Smith has worked with Petrino at multiple stops, and the ousted coach endorsed him for the position.
I think Jeff Long made a great hire, Petrino said. While there were several outstanding internal candidates, John L. brings a lot of head coaching experience to the table that will help Arkansas' transition. He will unify the staff, the team and the Razorback fan base.
Smith signed a one-year, $850,000 deal to become the interim head football coach. The interim nature of his contract is what could actually have the biggest impact on the program, at least long-term. Arkansas football could be hampered in recruiting players with an interim coach at the helm.
Because John L. Smith has the interim tag, it's a tough sell, said J.C. Shurburtt, the national recruiting director for 247Sports. Just following recruiting for years like I have, (the things) that are really going to ruin a recruiting class are instability and uncertainty.
If you look back over time when there are coaching changes with an interim takes over for a whole season, recruiting does go slow.
Arkansas had the 27th best recruiting class in the country last season, according to 247Sports, but isn't known as a recruiting hot spot. Shurburtt says Petrino had recruiting success by out-evaluating fellow coaches and avoiding tussles with some of college football's heavyweights like Texas and Alabama.
Petrino knew the type of player that would fit in with his schemes and scoured the country looking for players that Arkansas could realistically obtain. That could mean setting up shop in Texas -- six of the team's 2012 recruits hail from the Lone Star state -- or doing its best to keep limited in-state talent home.
Whether Smith is able to go out and have a similar level of success is what could determine the next few years of Arkansas football. The program is clearly on an upswing, but the big question is whether it can capitalize on it. Will it let a poor recruiting class or two doom it to the cellar of the SEC West division a few years down the line?
Arkansas' outcome could depend on when it decides to hire a permanent head coach. Smith would love to hold on to the job for the next few years, but Arkansas gave him only an eight-month contract and will try to attract a high-profile coach to guide the Razorbacks in 2013-14.
Having a full year to be on the lookout for the next football coach is a clear advantage for Arkansas over programs that will be searching in December or January. North Carolina and Ohio State both entered last season with interim head coaches in similar circumstances as Arkansas, but had vastly different experiences.
Ohio State targeted Urban Meyer, who was working at the time as an ESPN commentator, for months despite Luke Fickell guiding the team in the interim. North Carolina went with Everett Withers last year, who coincidentally now works as co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State with Fickell, before eventually hiring Southern Mississippi coach Larry Fedora in January.
Ohio State landed the fifth-best recruiting class in the nation, while North Carolina was only 42nd best. Ignoring the obvious prestige advantage that Ohio State possesses, the school succeeded in recruiting because it hired a well-known coach who could recruit without restrictions for months leading up to National Signing Day in February.
Shurburtt says Arkansas would be wise to try to follow Ohio State's game plan and hire a permanent coach as quickly as possible.
I think if you are Arkansas that's what you want to do, the recruiting expert explained to the International Business Times. You want to go make a big splash before everyone else. You need to do it as quickly as possible to begin the process in establishing (recruiting) relationships.
It's doubtful that Arkansas will be able to attract an Urban Meyer-type candidate, but the school has a lot of money to throw around and great facilities to entice recruits with. The school will always have its hands full with the likes of Alabama, LSU and Florida within the SEC, but it's a good job by most standards.
Financial Ramifications of the Scandal
With Petrino at the helm for Arkansas, the school experienced great success on the field and in its coffers.
The school saw its donations to the football program increase 359 percent in the 2007-2010 period, according to ESPN. That period represents the transition from former coach Houston Nutt to Petrino, who came with much fanfare from the NFL. The school also averaged 94 percent capacity for home games under Petrino while Nutt averaged only 91 percent.
How this will change with Petrino out of the picture is unknown. The university's Razorback Foundation refused to cooperate for this story on the donation patterns in April. The school publicly received a $1.5 million gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation for its courageous leadership in dealing with Petrino, but the bigger issue is how it affects the average booster.
Petrino, by most accounts, was well-liked by the Arkansas fanbase, especially when looking at the reaction the fans had after his affair with Dorrell went public. Razorbacks fans started a Facebook group in support of Petrino that gained thousands of members, as well as flooding message boards and radio airwaves in hopes that the head coach would be retained.
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long assuaged some of those feelings with a strong press conference detailing the reasons behind Petrino's dismissal, but hard feelings may linger. The best way to deal with it could be pointing back to the school's mission statement and why Petrino's actions violated it, according to one expert.
Boosters will always question difficult decisions, especially when it results in the loss of a figurehead who had an enduring personality or winning record, Heather Collart, a former athletics administrator, told ESPN. However, if you can point to a long-standing process that holds a mission statement as gospel, boosters will come to accept the decision much more quickly and in most cases will remain loyal to a program.
Where Does Petrino Go From Here?
Arkansas football has its share of problems this season, but they pale in comparison to the potential issues for Petrino.
Petrino lost a lot in the short-term -- he was making more than $3.6 million per year -- but he'll get another chance. He's simply too talented at what he does not to get another opportunity at another football program, whether it be at the collegiate or NFL level.
It's those skills that played a big part in getting the Arkansas job in the first place. He built a reputation for tossing his name into the hat of every possible job opportunity, despite publicly assuring his current employer that he wasn't headed anywhere. He also, incredibly, coached at three different places in 18 months after jumping from Louisville to the Atlanta Falcons, only to leave the NFL for Arkansas after a mere 13 games.
He got away with those indiscretions and blatant disloyalty because he was very good at what he did. It's unlikely that he'll ever get as high-profile of a job as Arkansas given his age and past, but a school that values winning above all else could tab Petrino to turn around a program.
An issue that Petrino will run into if he takes a job in college football is whether he can successfully recruit. His reputation was to outwork and out-evaluate competitors, but he'll face an uphill battle competing against other coaches given his recent scandal.
Shurburtt says parents already would have been skeptical of Petrino based on the affair, but it's his lying to the public and his higher-ups that could doom him in recruiting comptetition.
Everyone knows that in recruiting, the pitch you get from the coach that is recruiting you is not necessarily the reality of the situation, he said. You have to trust the coaching staff that you commit to, and opposing coaches would (be able) to point to that as why you shouldn't trust Bobby Petrino.
Petrino's return to college football may be difficult, but Dorrell's return is less likely. The former volleyball player lost her valued job and her fiancé due to the affair and is unlikely to get a job as plum as the one she had at Arkansas ever again.
Christianne Harder, one of the other 158 people to apply for Dorrell's former job, wrote that the affair with Petrino created a greater suspicion of all the women who apply and interview for these jobs. Thus, athletic directors and college coaches around the country may be wary of hiring Dorrell or others, especially women, without proper credentials for any position within their school's athletic departments.