Pig Trail trouble a lesson after Penn State

Posted: July 30, 2012 at 3 a.m.

Don Pederson (from left), University of Arkansas vice chancellor for finance and administration, Chancellor G. David Gearhart and Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Management Mike Johnson talk with a board of trustees committee in a conference call Tuesday at the administration building on the Fayetteville campus.

— Arkansas' firing of football coach Bobby Petrino was back in the news last week as sports journalists struggled to rank athletic department scandals following the disaster within Penn State's football program. One thread connecting them is the need to recognize, and act on, the teachable moments that come our way. There are few connections otherwise.

Comparing scandals side-by-side is impossible given the gravity and depravity at State College, with any school now able to fall back on a line that begins, "At least we're not ..." Institutions risk their own peril, however, if they don't learn a lesson.

The NCAA last week penalized Penn State with a $60 million fine, scholarship reductions and other penalties for failing to take action against an assistant coach later convicted of sexually abusing children, sometimes on campus.

The Razorbacks fired their coach in April after finding he violated university policies and perhaps those of the NCAA. Over the course of a week, Arkansas administrators uncovered lie after lie until realizing they could no longer trust their high-profile football program to the man they had in charge.

Petrino wasn't upfront about having a female rider with him when he crashed his motorcycle April 1. He didn't initially disclose the nature of his relationship with the young woman. He didn't reveal his influence over her obtaining an athletic department job.

Despite returning the football team to glory, Petrino had to go, the chancellor said.

"What hurt us more than anything was that we didn't get the true story," University of Arkansas Chancellor David Gearhart said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday. When the truths were uncovered, the damage was done.

"Having heard all of that, that was something that led all of us to consider the trust factor," Gearhart said. "You have to have a relationship of trust."

Gearhart watched from afar as Penn State imploded but had a second-row seat as a university administrator in State College from 1985-1995. Many of the names that came up during the Jerry Sandusky investigation and trial were more than just familiar.

"I still have friends up there," said Gearhart, Penn State's former senior vice president for development and university relations.

According to what was disclosed in Penn State's own report on the crisis, Gearhart's reaction to Petrino was the opposite of how Penn State leaders reacted to allegations against a popular assistant coach.

In the days following Petrino's accident, Gearhart said, he surrounded himself with the school's leadership team, seeking key administrators to help work the problem. "Trouble comes in trying to keep it in a very tight group," the chancellor said. Fewer voices give leaders fewer options.

At Penn State, a university-backed report by a former FBI chief faulted a handful of the school's top administrators for keeping allegations against then-assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to themselves. Their inaction, dating to 1998, led the NCAA to void Penn State football victories from that season through 2011.

"Four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University ... failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade," the Freeh report said.

Petrino's trouble on the Pig Trail involved two consenting adults but crossed a line in the university's eyes when Petrino influenced a decision to hire Jessica Dorrell to an athletic department post.

"The moral issue was important to all of us," Gearhart said. "The affair was not good. We didn't like that, but that was a personal thing between Bobby and his wife and his friend. But he had also given her money," which could have been a violation of NCAA rules.

"There's disappointment ... then shock," Gearhart said. "There were some days I was very angry."

Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long went on statewide television to announce Petrino's firing, knowing many in the state could be upset. The chancellor said he and Long knew inside that there was no way to protect the coach from himself.

"You have to go with your gut that it just isn't right," the chancellor said. Other members of the chancellor's inner circle concurred.

"It would have been difficult to sleep if we had done anything else," he said.

Following Petrino's firing, the chancellor said, he heard from countless people across the country satisfied with the outcome.

"People were ready to hear a university stand up and say there is something more important than winning football games," he said.

It's what the NCAA was looking for in State College 14 years ago.

Kelly P. Kissel has been Arkansas news editor for The Associated Press since 1994. He covered Penn State's administration and athletic department from 1990 to 1994.