InMarket: Petrino’s job saga: A lesson for managers


Chip Taulbee

In college football, as in other moneyed sports circles, coaches are not so much hired and fired as they are recycled.

Entering the rarified ranks of college coaches practically confers lifetime membership, usually at obscene rates of pay. A coach can be fired for any number of reasons – including personal transgressions – and promptly land another job. Sometimes, it’s even a job he’s had before.

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Case in point: Bobby Petrino – yes, that Bobby Petrino – was fired by University of Arkansas in 2012, immediately landed on his feet at Western Kentucky and now has signed on as head coach at the University of Louisville, a school he abandoned in 2007 (less than six months after signing a 10-year contract extension) to coach the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons.

I was working for a business journal in Little Rock when, days before Arkansas’ 2012 football spring practices, then-head coach Petrino wrecked his motorcycle. The wreck might have been no big deal except for one salacious detail: Petrino’s 25-year old mistress, Jessica Dorrell, was also on the bike.

The Arkansas Razorbacks were coming off an 11-2 season and a Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State at the time, and I was one of many fans who had deluded themselves into thinking the team could be a national contender that season.

Our hopes were dashed when we found out that Petrino not only had a bike mate when he crashed but that he lied to the athletic director about her involvement. Topping off the scandal: Petrino had hired Dorrell to work for the football program just days before the accident. Bye, bye Bobby.

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Firing Petrino was clearly the right thing to do but his departure was a disaster for Arkansas football. The Razorbacks have won a total of just seven games in the two seasons since he left.

The coach, on the other hand, hasn’t missed a beat. He spent one season at Western Kentucky, then scurried back to Louisville when the Cardinals’ coach, Charlie Strong, left for the University of Texas. The only apparent aftertaste of his ugly departure from Arkansas was the welcome-back greeting offered by Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich: “If you lie to me. I’ll kill you.”

From a football standpoint, Louisville could not have hoped for a better coach to replace Strong. But even the guy who hired him, Athletic Director Jurich, is hedging his bets, putting a $10-million buyout clause in Petrino’s contract. This is the same Petrino, after all, who signed a five-year contract with the Falcons only to leave less than a year later and just jumped to Louisville with three years remaining on a four-year contract at Western Kentucky.

Those who don’t bleed Cardinal red can and probably will question Louisville’s win-at-any-cost mentality in hiring a coach with Petrino’s off-the-field track record. But many businesses often face similar circumstances when looking for top-notch talent to fill important positions.

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During the turbulent economy of the period many refer to as the Great Recession, from about 2009 to 2012 , I came across many business leaders who were surprised the talent pool did not deepen but in fact had shrunk. I found the same. Eventually, we reasoned that in tough times companies and organizations would go to extraordinary measures to hold onto their best people – or find replacements for those who left.

Of course there are benefits and risks in rehiring someone with a checkered past, especially someone you’ve parted company with previously. In weighing the pros and cons here are some questions a manager should ask.

Is this person the best candidate, or the best candidate you can find right now? The time it takes to properly recruit, vet and hire the right employee can be lengthy and taxing but should be weighed against not just the time it takes to repeat this process, train someone and go through the formalities of terminating a bad hire but also weighed against the harm done to customers, team members and vendors when you make the wrong hire. Good managers rarely find themselves having acted too cautiously in hiring someone. When adding to your team, patience is a great virtue.

Why did this person leave and have those circumstances changed? Circumstances change; people generally do not. Employees can enhance their skills and gain new perspectives, but the ability and desire to properly balance one’s own motivations against the organization’s and the drive to succeed are mostly static. If an employee leaves – on their own accord or yours – for reasons having to do with integrity or work ethic, these challenges will in all likelihood not go away.

How did this person behave before they left? In interviews with prospective employees I try to ascertain how a person will behave under duress. Often, employees face increased stress before they leave a job, whether they are struggling with their current position or simply balancing it with other ambitions. Exploring this period sheds light on how they will perform when the going inevitably gets tough.

How will your current team be affected? Hiring someone should not be a popularity contest, but if an employee’s previous stay was affected by their inability to work well with someone else – whether their fault, the other party’s or, more likely, both – those challenges are likely to persist. Even if the two people who butted heads would no longer have to work together, there still may be a risk that the potential hire will be unable to work with a particular type of person or within certain scenarios.

Chip Taulbee is president of the Fort Worth Business Press. Submit InMarket ideas to