Pundit Roundup and Bobby Petrino

Punditroundup

So, yeah, it's been awhile...

I honestly don't even remember the last Pundit Roundup column, but I'm pretty sure it involved covering the coverage of an ugly scandal. Unfortunately, this column will be more of the same.

The Bobby Petrino motorcycle crash-turned-scandal is clearly the biggest story of the Spring, and it could have significant ramifications for one of the purported National Title Contenders in 2012. However, in reading the coverage over this salacious story, I've noticed something interesting. In a story about a motorcycle crash involving Bobby Petrino, a "previous inappropriate relationship" involving Bobby Petrino, and a cover-up orchestrated by Bobby Petrino, a significant portion of the coverage has revolved around....Jeff Long, the Arkansas AD. Which is completely understandable. With the key facts of the scandal quickly crystallizing and eliminating some superfluous angles to the story, the nature of the coverage rapidly shifted to discussing whether or not Long should fire Petrino. But that's not the really interesting part.

To me, the most interesting portion of this story's coverage remains the fact that several pundits have avoided giving passionate arguments over whether Petrino should be sacked or saved. Instead, from my perspective, the most common narrative over this story has instead involved fleshing out the confluence of factors that will be a part of Jeff Long's final decision. More, after the jump.

Now, to be clear, several pundits have given concrete answers to the question over whether or not Bobby Petrino should be fired. Dennis Dodd and Thayer Evans both say yes. So does Gregg Doyel and (eventually) Clay Travis. To the contrary, Pete Fiutak says no.

In any case, my point with this column isn't to do a scoreboard of exactly how many people think Bobby Petrino should be fired. Instead, my main point is simply to highlight that many pundits have eschewed fervently taking one side or the other. By focusing their columns over the intricacies involved with Jeff Long's decision--without necessarily getting up on a Soapbox--these pundits are essentially letting their readers make up their own minds over what should happen to Bobby Petrino.

For example, Andy Staples starts off his column over this situation with three short words that pretty much gave me the idea for this Pundit Roundup.

Poor Jeff Long.

In his article, Staples does an excellent job fleshing out the circumstances of this case and makes it clear that "these are not normal circumstances." After walking through the facts of the case, the legality of firing Petrino, and the relationship between Petrino and Long, Staples gets back to the topic addressed by his first sentence. To wit, the column concludes with a few sentences outlining the enormity and complexity of the decision facing Long, who honestly sounds like he could go either way:

Long certainly sounded angry with his coach, but he didn't shut the door on him. "Certainly when someone isn't as forthcoming as they should have been, certainly it puts the relationship in a different place," Long said. "But, can we overcome that? That's something we've got to work through."

Will Long work through his issues with Petrino? Or will he answer Petrino's betrayal with a pink slip?
Petrino gave Long several reasons to fire him this week. But during the past two seasons, Petrino gave Long 21 reasons to keep him. Long will have to decide which criteria mean more.

While everyone should be sad about the departure of Matt Hinton from Dr. Saturday, Graham Watson is doing an admirable job trying to fill his shoes. In her own column over the situation, Watson says that Petrino "could be fired" and cites both the strength and weaknesses of using the Pitino precedent to analyze this situation. However, I thought the last paragraph of her article was particularly strong.

Petrino has put Arkansas in a terrible position here. He finally got the football team back on the national map and now he's dragging it through the mud.

Not to be outdone by the other pundits, Chris Low of ESPN.com wrote *two* separate articles over the upcoming decision facing Jeff Long. In the first article, which was aptly titled "No Easy Decisions for Arkansas' Long," Low systemically explains the long list questions and factors that Long will have to consider.

Now Long has one hellacious decision to make.

In short, can Petrino still be effective going forward as Arkansas' head football coach? Can he be trusted? Has he violated his contract and/or university policy to a point where he's no longer viable as a leader? Is this a stain on the university that won't easily go away as long as Petrino is still coaching the Hogs?

Honestly, if Petrino had gone 9-3 last season and 8-4 the year before, he'd probably already be gone.

But he didn't. He's a proven winner and has elevated Arkansas' program to a position of national prominence that the Hogs haven't enjoyed in 30 years.

Put yourself in Long's place.

Petrino came in and did exactly what Long hired him to do. He made Arkansas a national player in four years, taking the Hogs to their first BCS bowl in his third season and winning 11 games last season and finishing No. 5 in the final polls.

All the while, financial contributions have come pouring in at a dizzying rate, so much so that Arkansas is building a new $40.3 million football center that's scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2013.

In his second column over the topic, Low spends more time discussing the conduct of Petrino, but he also comes back to discussing the ultimate decision faced by Long without ever tipping his own hand.

Ultimately, what Long will have to decide is whether Petrino violated the terms of his contract, which has a clause in it that would allow Arkansas to fire Petrino for "engaging in conduct, as solely determined by the university, which is clearly contrary to the character and responsibilities of a person occupying the position of head football coach or which negatively or adversely affects the reputation of the (university's) athletics programs in any way."

In a column titled "Should Bobby Petrino Be Fired by Arkansas," SBN's Jason Kirk expresses his belief that Petrino should probably be fired by Jeff Long. However, after walking through some of Petrino's contract language, Kirk follows the lead of other pundits and analyzes the difficult situation facing Jeff Long.

The question is not whether Arkansas can fire Bobby Petrino, but whether he should be fired.

As SI.com's Andy Staples writes, Long's been given plenty of reasons to fire Petrino over the past week. But over the past two years, he's been given plenty of reasons to keep him around forever. Which matters more?

This decision comes down to three things. Do powerful Arkansas people care more about what Petrino did wrong or what he's done for the program? And can Petrino still recruit? The former might come down #TEAMFOOTBALL, and any SEC program can bring in talent, but the latter is hardest to answer.

For his part, the (freed) Bruce Feldman focuses on the spectacle of the story in pointing out how Long was stunned by the rapidity of the developments.

You have a successful coach, already with a dubious personal history ethically (don't think Atlanta Falcons fans or Louisville fans aren't loving this) of a hot program in the big-top world of the SEC, linked to an attractive blonde, who by the way, is engaged to another person in the Razorback athletic department. It has the capacity to keep the Twitterverse buzzing for weeks while Long tries to sort out exactly what happened with his $3 million coach.

At the press conference, you could see how blindsided Long was. He said he doesn't really know what he's looking for until he finds it.

In his article, Feldman also points out how Long's decision is complicated by Petrino's historical success on the gridiron, which, in conjunction with the questionable circumstances of Jessica Dorrell's hiring, helps make this entire ordeal "messy."
We've seen repeated instances of coaches getting themselves into awkward and embarrassing situations time and time again and yet, if the guy is a winner, people will give them another chance. Lots of folks have short memories. A lot shorter than those it seems of the media--and rival fans.
As I said before, this one's messy.
Interestingly enough, the non-Soapbox approach wasn't limited to the national media. Perhaps more than any other columnist, Seth Gunderson of the Fayetteville Flyer explicitly avoided giving his opinion over what should happen to Bobby Petrino. In fact, that was pretty much the entire point of his column:
Jeff Long has not been put in a good situation

So, what will it be?

Will Long suspend Petrino, dock him some pay and attach an extremely tight leash? All the while letting the university deal with the potential mess?

Or will Long take a strong stance by firing Petrino and say the University of Arkansas will not put up with this kind of behavior?

I'm just as eager as everyone else to know what's going on with our football program. But this is one time that I don't want to feel what Jeff Long is going through and the tough decisions he'll have to make.

Wear those shoes well, Mr. Long. I'm quite sure they won't fit me.

Gunderson isn't the only Arkansas fan who is torn over this story. Far from it. To that extent, an entire portion of the article written by Pete Thamel and Adam Himmelsbach spotlighted just how much the Arkansas fanbase is conflicted over Petrino's fate. In my opinion, the second quote is perhaps the most perfectly distilled analysis of the situation from an Arkansas fan.
"I couldn't imagine us getting a replacement that would be able to satisfy the Razorback nation like he has," Watkins said. "It would be a needle to the heart for sure. Everyone has so much hope in Bobby, so much faith."
Rhonda Carey, who wore Arkansas apparel as she watched a Razorbacks softball game Friday, said that if Petrino had struggled as a coach, "then this would be the chance to get rid of him - but he's been winning."

Conclusion

With the Petrino scandal essentially begging for a series of sanctimonious columns from the national media, I've been surprised by the measured approach taken by many pundits. While no one has excused the conduct of Bobby Petrino in this case--especially in relation to the failed cover-up--many pundits have avoided writing their own version of a soapbox column. Instead, these pundits have primarily sought to encapsulate the bigger picture, which relates to the wide-ranging factors that will influence Jeff Long's decision. In seeking this broader narrative, pundits have primarily laid out all the relevant facts and then allowed their readers to make up their own minds over what should happen.

For better or worse, this broader narrative won't last much longer. As soon as a decision over Petrino's future is made, the internet will quickly become ablaze with columns either praising or condemning the actions or inactions of Jeff Long and the Arkansas Athletic Department. All the grayness involved with the current rhetoric over this topic will quickly separate into the more popular black and white. That type of polemic discourse over this topic is simply inevitable, and it makes it all the more surprising that it hasn't already happened yet.

Hook 'em!

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