The breakup between a head coach and his football program rarely is a carefree experience.
Usually, there’s at least one party who is really upset at the end of the relationship, and sometimes, nearly everyone involved is frustrated and angry.
Those raw emotions can boil over into a controversial situation which reaches the public eye. The recent separation of Baylor and long-time head coach Art Briles served as a reminder that this type of ending can happen to any program, and it can come when fans least expect it.
While we likely could go deep into the SEC history book to find some really interesting tales of yesteryear, today we’re going to focus on the most controversial SEC coaching departures of the 21st century.
2012: Bobby Petrino, Arkansas
As far as modern SEC football is concerned, the “controversial departure” discussion begins and ends with former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino. It involves a motorcycle, an alleged mistress, a neck brace and wicked road burn. Checkmate.
In early 2012, Petrino wrecked a motorcycle and a promising career as the Razorbacks head man on one fateful March afternoon. 25-year-old Jessica Dorrell– a former Razorbacks volleyball player — was on the ride with him. As it turned out, Petrino reportedly was having an inappropriate relationship with her and had recently hired her for a role within the program.
“He made the decision, a conscious decision, to mislead the public on Tuesday, and in doing so negatively and adversely affected the reputation of the University of Arkansas and our football program,” Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said, according to ESPN. “In short, coach Petrino engaged in a pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior designed to deceive me and members of the athletic staff, both before and after the motorcycle accident.”
2010: Urban Meyer, Florida
Just a year after taking time away from the job due to health concerns, former Gators coach Urban Meyer stepped away from his role for good following the 2010 football season.
Meyer, who won two national championships during his time in Gainesville, cited a desire to spend more time with his family as the chief reason for his resignation.
“At the end of the day, I’m very convinced that you’re going to be judged on how you are as a husband and as a father and not on how many bowl games we won,” Meyer said at a campus news conference, according to ESPN.
That’s all well and good, but it was what happened afterward that made this decision controversial. After sitting out just one season, Meyer was back in the action coaching at Ohio State. It also was reported that Meyer may have lost control of the locker room in Gainesville, causing him to opt for a more palatable situation.
2004: Nick Saban, LSU
Less than a year after Nick Saban hoisted the BCS national championship trophy for the first time, he was on his way to Miami to coach the Dolphins.
It was not as much controversial as it was emotional to see the man who had become a cult hero of sorts down in Baton Rogue up and leave for a lucrative deal in the NFL after assuring his team and fan base that he was happy there.
Saban could have been interpreted as a bit callous when speaking of it to the media after his way out of town. Many LSU fans still hold it against him.
“At some point in everyone’s life, they have to make some kind of career decision that affects other people, and that’s how I explained it to them,” Saban said, according to ESPN. “They have managed this well — better than I have.”
Interestingly enough, Saban would catch heat on the other side of his stint in Miami for intensely denying he had any interest in leaving the NFL to coach at Alabama right until he announced that he would join the Crimson Tide following just two seasons with the Dolphins.
2003: Mike Price, Alabama
Mike Price was hired to coach football games at Alabama, but he never made it that far.
A night of wild partying in Florida cost the new Crimson Tide coach his post months before he would have received the opportunity to lead the 2003 Alabama football team on the field.
According to USA Today, the university let Price go after an investigation led to some findings unbecoming to his position.
University officials investigated reports that the night before a recent pro-am golf tournament in Pensacola, Fla., Price spent $200 on drinks and tips at a strip club and then had about $1,000 in food and drink charged to his bill by a woman staying in his hotel room.
It was not the first time that his conduct was called into question, giving the university grounds to make a change.
“Coach Price had been warned several weeks before about his public conduct,” Alabama president Robert Witt said in 2003, per USA Today. “His conduct in Florida was not consistent with the warning he received.”
2002: Dennis Franchione, Alabama
Dennis Franchione’s two-year stint at Alabama was full of relative success in the face of trying circumstances stemming from the misgiving of the previous coaching regime, but the Crimson Tide was unable to convince the popular coach to hang around for the long-term.
Franchione took over a program that won just three games in 2000 and won a combined 17 games during the 2001 and 2002 seasons. But as the Crimson Tide tried to lock down Franchione as its coach for the foreseeable future, the coach was floating his name to anyone that would listen, presumably hoping to get out of town before harsher NCAA sanctions hit Tuscaloosa.
When the NCAA announced its sanctions in the Albert Means case, Franchione pleaded with the nearly 40 juniors and seniors who could transfer without losing a season of eligibility to stay, to depend on him and to depend on each other. He asked them not to give up just because the job became tougher. They believed in him, and when other schools came courting, they stayed.
But instead of staying with his team, Franchione instead interviewed for and accepted the Texas A&M job. He then reportedly opted to inform his Crimson Tide players via video conference rather than in person.
The Crimson Tide was hit by the NCAA with the loss of 21 scholarships and received a two-year bowl ban, all of which Franchione dodged by getting out of town. Many Alabama fans still resent the way Franchione went about leaving the program.