Ron Agostini

Petrino weasels way out

Every once in a while you run into a story that just captures your heart and makes it all warm and fuzzy.

I'm referring, of course, to Bobby Petrino, the new head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. He stands for all those things football coaches talk about for hours -- loyalty, team play, selflessness.

Yeah, right.

Sarcasm aside, Petrino embodies the high-priced prima donna coach, your gone-to-the-highest-bidder mercenary who's loyal only to his pocketbook and his ego.

He quit on the Atlanta Falcons' failed season after only 13 games Tuesday by kissing off a five-year $24 million contract at the first sign of trouble. He said "hello" to Arkansas while his "goodbye" still echoed in the ATL.

Today, his mission statement kicks every right-minded coach in the shins:

When the going gets tough, I'm gone.

Why bother with finishing a tough job?

I'll honor a contract if I'm in the mood.

Wonderful sentiments, no?

Unfortunately for the rest of us, Petrino isn't the only gun-for-hire whose handshake is worth about four cents. Last year, his role was played by Nick Saban, the first-year Alabama coach who said one thing to the Miami Dolphins -- his former place of employment -- and then did the 180-degree opposite.

I thought Saban, who gladly lied if it improved his bargaining power, was the finished product. He was the ultimate example of the guy who would do or say anything if he eventually got what he wanted.

I was wrong. Petrino is cutting edge. He makes Saban, Larry Brown and other vagabonds look downright fatherly.

What worsens this episode is knowing exactly why Petrino bolted.

He didn't sign on for the Falcons without Michael Vick, he'll no doubt argue. He was supposed to channel his point-a-minute offense through Vick, the franchise's face, at quarterback. That was the plan, a promising idea until Vick was convicted on dogfighting charges, crimes that have put him behind bars for 23 months. Without Vick, the Falcons (3-10) disintegrated and Petrino's flashy X's and O's circled the drain.

Vick's sentence was announced Monday, a few hours before Atlanta was embarrassed by New Orleans on national TV. The scene was bizarre and depressing -- fans wearing Vick's No. 7 jersey and pledging their faith to the man who thermo-nuked their team, players unfurling a "Free Mike Vick" towel and, on the sideline, a coach who couldn't wait to escape.

Regardless, a question: Is there still a clause in the coach's manual that covers victories over adversity? I mean, did Petrino even ponder the challenge while he hot-stepped out the door?

The answer is no. And that's too bad.

Reasonable fans, realizing the horrific hand he was dealt, would have cut Petrino some slack. The coach, minus Vick and all that canine baggage, would have rebuilt the team to his specifications. He would have been allowed time, especially if the Falcons showed progress. If it didn't work, the fill-in-the-blank collegiate job still would have been there for him.

Instead, Petrino fast-tracked to his collegiate comfort zone without even finishing the season. En route, he humiliated Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the Home Depot genius who must wonder why he agreed to even dive into the NFL sewer.

Then again, Petrino was just being Petrino.

He decorated his four-year tenure at Louisville with a 41-9 record and a fascination over throwing his name into every coaching vacancy. He flirted with seemingly every big-time job like the cheerleader eyeing the star running back. He signed a 10-year contract worth $25 million at Louisville in July 2006. Five months later, he said, "Thanks for the memories" and scooted to Atlanta.

Gutless.

Worse, Petrino and Saban appear to have inspired a willing student in LSU's Les Miles. Here's a man who doesn't let a day go by without professing his eternal loyalty to the Tigers, while holding out a flower toward Michigan, his alma mater in search of a coach.

And so what if LSU soon will match up with Ohio State for the national championship? It's not about the players or the tradition or the glory or even the money. It's about the coach, the guy who hugs his quarterback while he examines the landscape for a better deal.

Arkansas got its man, all right, in Petrino. Still, the Razorbacks must confess as they hear him call the hogs: Sooner or later, he'll burn us, too.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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