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How Petrino's exit unfolded


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How Petrino's exit unfolded

Coach's agent says Blank threatened legal action; owner says that is a 'lie'

By TONY BARNHART , RONNIE RAMOS

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 12/12/07

Kickoff was still six hours away, and Arthur Blank was already having the kind of day that sends lesser men hurrying into retirement.

The face of his once proud Falcons franchise, Michael Vick, had just been sentenced to 23 months' jail time for his role in a dogfighting operation. And now, Bobby Petrino, a college coach Blank had lured away from Louisville with a five-year, $24 million contract, was wondering whether he was cut out for the rough-and-tumble pro ranks.

What a day for "Monday Night Football" cameras to be in town to show his stumbling team's game against New Orleans.

Blank needed some good news. The Falcons' owner called Petrino into his expansive family foundation office in Buckhead, not to talk about that night's game but Petrino's future. Was he in for the long haul, Blank asked, or was he out?

"I pressed him," Blank said, "because I needed to know."

At the end of the hour-long meeting, Petrino stood up to leave. He had a game to go coach. "He shook my hand and said, 'You have a head coach'," Blank said.

Twenty-four hours later, Blank didn't.

Petrino was introduced late Tuesday night as the new coach at the University of Arkansas.

His abrupt resignation from the Falcons capped a week of intense meetings and maneuvers that included calls from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a late-night meeting at Blank's Buckhead home and a private plane sent to take Petrino away.

While the sequence of some of the events is disputed, everyone agrees Petrino was not happy. And things did not end well.

Jones, a former Arkansas football player, first phoned Blank last Thursday afternoon and told the Falcons owner he had gotten a call from the chairman of the board at Arkansas. The school wanted permission to speak to Petrino, Blank said. "I almost dropped the phone," Blank said.

"From my perspective, the answer is no," Blank said he told Jones. But Blank told Jones to call Rich McKay, the Falcons' president and general manager, for a formal answer.

On Friday, Petrino called Blank to tell him he was thinking of returning to college coaching. That same day, McKay talked to Jones. "I told him I was not inclined to grant permission," McKay said.

That didn't stop Petrino's agent, Russ Campbell of Birmingham. Campbell told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday there were discussions as early as three weeks ago. Campbell insisted he first told Blank and McKay of Petrino's unhappiness three weeks ago and that going back to college coaching was a possibility. "Arthur told me that if any time Bobby was no longer comfortable, all he had to do was come to him and he would let him go back to college football," Campbell said.

That is when Campbell said he first called Arkansas about Petrino's availability. Arkansas wasn't interested until late last week, when Jim Grobe of Wake Forest turned down the job, Campbell said. "The conversations took place over a series of days, but as it is with any talks, there is an ebb and flow," Campbell said.

On Sunday afternoon, McKay said, he talked to Jones, the Cowboys owner, again. McKay again said he was not inclined to grant permission for the school to talk to Petrino. Jones asked for a final answer so "he could get back to the people at Arkansas," McKay said.

Later that day, Petrino and McKay met with Blank at the owner's home. Petrino laid out his concerns as Blank took notes on a legal pad. Blank repeatedly refused on Wednesday to say what Petrino wanted, but was adamant the issues were not insurmountable. All Blank would say was that Petrino was concerned about the differences between coaching in college and the NFL.

The Sunday meeting did not resolve Petrino's issues. The three men would meet again Monday afternoon.

On Monday morning, according to Arkansas' out-going athletics director, Frank Broyles, there was more conversation about Petrino coming to the school. Added Campbell, Petrino's agent: "Things began to come to a head on Monday."

Broyles, who was in Atlanta on Wednesday on unrelated business, told the Journal-Constitution about Jones' contact with Blank.

"What I have heard is that [Jones and Blank] are good friends," Broyles said. "I was told Jerry got permission from Arthur Blank. Jerry talked to Arthur to get an interview. What happened after that, I don't know."

Blank and McKay both said Wednesday they never granted that permission.

Broyles said he did not have direct knowledge of the negotiations.

McKay said Wednesday that Jones' actions did not violate NFL tampering rules because Jones did not represent himself as an NFL owner.

It was clear when Petrino and his agent Campbell met Monday afternoon with McKay and Blank at the Blank Family Foundation offices that Petrino remained concerned. "He came into the office, we sat down and I said, 'Did you have any thoughts?'" Blank recalled. "He didn't say a word.

"Rich went through all the issues Bobby raised and told him we could get them all worked out.

The word Arkansas never, never in capital letters came up. He never brought the name up."

Campbell said he came to that meeting thinking it was formulate a plan to allow Petrino to explore the Arkansas job. Instead, McKay and Blank made it clear they would fight Petrino if he tried to leave and that fight could include legal action, Campbell said.

"Arthur said he had to protect his franchise," Campbell said.

"So Bobby listens to his for an hour and a half and at the end of the meeting he feels he has no choice," Campbell said.

Blank was adamant when contacted Wednesday night about Campbell's comments. "It's a complete [expletive] lie," Blank said. "There was never any discussion of legal action."

Blank said he told Petrino it was up to him. "I told him it was a free country. It's America. Do what you want to do. I signed a five-year contract with you. You have options. I don't have options."

Both sides agree that by the end of the meeting, Petrino said he would remain the Falcons coach. "When he took the field Monday night, he thought it was over," Campbell said. "He thought they had no choice but to stay." At 5 p.m., McKay called Jones and told him the Falcons were officially denying the request to talk to Petrino. Campbell called Arkansas incoming athletics director Jeff Long, who was in charge of finding a new coach, and told him the school would not receive permission to talk to Petrino.

On the floor of the Georgia Dome, 30 minutes before the nationally televised football game, Blank said, Campbell also shook his hand and told him: "Glad things worked out."

They did, but not the way Blank expected.

"After the game, [Petrino] went home with his family and they were inconsolable because of the events from the day," Campbell said. "He is sitting there at home with his crying family. And he's pretty upset himself."

Petrino, when introduced to the Arkansas media late Tuesday night, would say: "It really wasn't a change in mind. It was working out the details and the ability to get here. I wanted to get back to coaching college football."

It was in the wee hours of Tuesday morning that Petrino said he decided to resign, Campbell said.

"Fortunately for him, Arkansas had not already gone in another direction," Campbell said.

Long said he got a call from Campbell between 8 and 9 a.m. Tuesday. The message: Petrino intended to resign as coach of the Falcons.

Long decided he would not wait for the resignation and would fly to Atlanta to meet with Petrino.

At 11 a.m., Long spoke with John H. White, the Arkansas chancellor, and told him Petrino might be available. After getting the parameters of the contract terms he would be able to offer Petrino, he boarded a private plane with Scott Varady, the school's associate general counsel.

They landed at Fulton County Airport at 1:30 p.m. and went to an undisclosed downtown location to meet with Petrino and his agent. The meeting started at 2 p.m. and did not last long. After a short discussion, Long and Petrino agreed on the basic outline of a deal. The details of the contract were turned over to Campbell and Varady.

Petrino returned to Falcons headquarters in Flowery Branch and walked into McKay's office to resign. He then called Blank. "When he called me for the 30-second conversation after he resigned, I said to him, 'I assume you're going to Arkansas,' Blank told the Journal-Constitution. "He said he didn't know what he was going to do. I swear to God. He never admitted then that he was going to Arkansas."

At 8 p.m., Petrino and his family left Atlanta on the private plane with Long, his new boss, and Varady. He signed his new coaching contract on the plane.

Shortly before midnight, the coach was on a Fayetteville stage doing the school's "Woo Pig Sooey" chant as ESPN broadcast his introductory news conference live across the country.

Staff writers Steve Wyche and Andy Miller contributed to this article.

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Answers some of those "What the **** was he thinking?" questions, like when to go for it, what play to call, time outs, challenges. After the initial shock, I feel 100 times better he is gone. I never heard his name at the start, and thought it was a bad hire. Then I bought into everything he was going for with the team. It was clear there were many problems that weren't easily fixed with him, but I am glad he is gone and we can get a pro-caliber coach, not a pretender. This exit makes it so much clearer. The funny part is, if he finished out the season he would get about 1/100th of the crap he is getting now.

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All I need to say is "good luck Mr. Petrino"....thats right you heard me right. He left a team that no one expected much from with all the things that went on with this team this year, and ending any chance he has at EVER getting back into the NFL( even though I doubt he could do it in the future). Now he is jumping into arguably the toughest conference in college football thinking he can get a national championship? Really, at Arkansas....hmmmmm. Even with the fact that you are loosing your top wide out and your stud running back AND his back up. And you think that you can actually recruit peoples kids to play for you. Who do you think their parents are, thats right, they are probably NFL fans. Lets hope Florida, LSU, Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn take it easy on you for the 6 months you will be at Arkansas.

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