Mark Wiedmer: Are AU or UT desperate enough to hire Petrino?

Mark Wiedmer: Are AU or UT desperate enough to hire Petrino?

October 15th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Bobby Petrino

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

A friend posed an interesting question to me at the grocery Sunday evening.

"So who's going to hire Bobby Petrino first -- Auburn or Tennessee?" he asked.

My answer was that hopefully neither school will hire him. Hopefully no one anywhere will hire the former Arkansas football coach who somehow forgot he was a married father long enough to have an affair with an athletic department employee, promoted her to a job she may or may not have been qualified to have, then lied about all of it to his athletic director.

Any university that would hire Petrino should disallow any pretense that ethics, character and decency are a part of its mission statement.

Just come right out and say, "Our motto is 'The End Justifies the Means.' We're changing our athletic nickname to Pigs, Snakes or Cockroaches -- at least until the ACLU or Humane Society charge that's an affront to pigs, snakes and cockroaches -- and we're trying to hire John Edwards or Arnold Schwarzenegger as our school president."

But sooner or later a school more desperate than Auburn or Tennessee -- Kentucky, perhaps? -- is going to give Bobby Pinocchio another chance. That's what losing does to folks.

But if not Petrino, should either Auburn or Tennessee still consider replacing their current coaches -- Gene Chizik and Derek Dooley, respectively -- after their weekend losses to the Magnolia State brothers, Ole Miss and Mississippi State?

Has the Vols' 41-31 loss at unbeaten State -- even Dooley admitted afterward: "We played a pretty bad first half. We had a lot of mistakes and we didn't look good." -- encouraged UT athletic director Dave Hart to dismiss a coach he didn't hire after just three seasons?

Of greater surprise, would Auburn seriously consider firing Chizik two seasons after he directed the Tigers to their first national title since 1957?

And if it would, how many coaches worth hiring would want to work for an administration that would make such a move. Especially as long as Alabama coach Nick Saban is making life miserable for the War Eagle Nation?

Yes, the Tigers are now 1-5 on the season with remaining land mines against Texas A&M, Georgia and Bama. And unless Chizik finds himself a quarterback it's hard to see AU being noticeably better a year from now.

There's also the Guz Malzahn factor. With Malzahn coordinating the Tigers offense over Chizik's first three seasons at Auburn, AU 30-10. Without Malzahn on his staff, Chizik's combined record at Iowa State and Auburn is 6-24. Ouch.

Yet Dooley's future seems no more certain or easy to predict. On the one hand, the Vols are clearly better equipped to deal with the top half of the league this season than a year ago, when every second half looked as if it should carry a white flag of surrender.

The Vols led Florida midway through the second half last month. They twice came within a possession of taking the lead at State. They certainly outplayed Georgia in the fourth quarter of that defeat.

But after ranking 28th nationally in defense last season under former coordinator Justin Wilcox, the Vols are now at or near the bottom of the SEC in nearly every important category under Wilcox successor Sal Sunseri, who installed the 3-4 defense and scrapped the 4-3 D after arriving last winter from Alabama.

Given the heat on Dooley after the MSU defeat dropped him to 0-13 against ranked opponents, one might even wonder if Sunseri could be the UT boss's Dave Clausen, whom former Vols boss Phillip Fulmer brought in as offensive coordinator after David Cutcliffe went to Duke in 2008.

Much as Sunseri's D is vastly different than Wilcox's, Clausen's system was vastly different than Cutcliffe's. The Vols' offense never jelled, the team posted its second losing season in four years and Fulmer was fired.

But Bobby Pinocchio aside, should Auburn and Tennessee make coaching changes?

Auburn is easy. Malzahn or no Malzahn, you just can't fire a guy two seasons after a national championship. Especially when you hadn't won one for 53 years.

As for Dooley, I wrote four years ago that Fulmer deserved another season, that if he failed to produce a much better record in 2009 than he had in 2008, even the coach might admit his alma mater needed new blood.

I would say the same of Dooley today. He inherited a mammoth mess. The breaks certainly haven't gone his way. UT seems to be making progress overall, though far more slowly than any Volniac would like.

And this cannot be ignored, though it's uncertain whether it helps or hurts his future: The UT athletic department ran a deficit last year. Buying out Dooley would cost $5 million.

Does Hart make that move, hopeful a new coach would ignite fan interest? Or does he dig in for a cold, hard winter, confident that Dooley's fourth season will give him all the information he needs to keep his coach or cut him loose?

There are no easy answers, especially when six SEC teams are currently in the BCS standings' top 12.

As Dooley was wrapping up his press conference following the Mississippi State loss, he said of his defenseless D, "We hit stretches where we played pretty good, which is what is bizarre."

Let's just hope nothing happening behind closed doors at Auburn, Tennessee or any other SEC outpost is bizarre enough to bring back Bobby Pinocchio.