by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It seems like we're never far away from football season. Even in springtime, when NFL items can always rise up and dominate news cycles, as we've seen in recent weeks with a variety of headlines from Peyton Manning's signing with the Broncos, the trade of Tim Tebow to the Jets, and the mess surrounding the Saints and their bounties.

College football can occasionally move into the headlines in the offseason as well, although usually not in the manner it did last week when the scandal surrounding Arkansas HC Bobby Petrino completely overheated in Fayetteville and resulted in the shock dismissal of the Razorback coach.

Shenanigans not too dissimilar from the Petrino situation have been going on at the highest levels of sport, business, and government for as long as we can remember, and likely a lot longer than that, too. We are reminded of a story related to us by a college fooball insider who noted behavior somewhat similar to Petrino's many years ago by one high-profile head coach, whose secretary was also his mistress and traveled to road games with the team, rooming with the married coach as well. Moreover, at the time, the relationship was fairly common knowledge within that particular athletic department. But no one seemed to think much of the relationship, and business continued as usual within the football program and the school.

That story, however, and likely several others similar to it, occurred before the days of the internet and proliferatrion of numerous cable TV sports channels. Nowadays, with so many potential whistleblowers in the "new" media, stories such as Petrino's have no way of avoiding the limelight once word leaks. The rumors, or truths, spread like wildfire. And when they include the soap opera-like elements of Petrino's tale (including the motorcycle crash), it becomes irresistible stuff for internet sites and sports-talk junkies, especially in a region like the one encompassed by the SEC, which is starved for football information all year long.

We suspect the repercussions of "Petrino-gate" will continue for a while and remain as a headline story in SEC country well into the summer. Sources have informed us of a wide range of angles to the story that are not necessarily consistent with the public narrative. Although some of the potential fireworks were avoided when Petrino decided not to contest his dismissal and to accept the decision of AD Jeff Long.

Still, expect several lawsuits to ensue, especially regarding the circumvention of affirmative action hiring practices relating to Jessica Dorrell, Petrino's mistress who had also been recently hired as a staff assistant. Sources have also reported that Dorrell had asked Petrino for a car to be provided with the job, and when the coach told her that wasn't part of the compensation for the position, he simply handed her the $20,000 necessary to buy a new auto.

No wonder Petrino is in no hurry to have a public airing of any more potential dirty laundry that would surely have come to the forefront had he disputed his dismissal.

As for the school, it is girding for potential problems relating not only those bypassed for Jessica Dorrell in the hiring process for the staff assistant position, but also what could possibly ensue relating to what else might have been going on internally within the football program. Safe to say the school was also relieved that Petrino decided not to fight the recent decision.

According to regional insiders, sentiment in Razorback Nation was still running close to 70-30 in favor of retaining Petrino before the news of the $20,000 "gift" to Dorrell was made public. Some also speculate that Long knew of the relationship between his coach and the staff aide before it became public knowledge, and that Petrino might have been afforded a chance to stay on the job with reworked contract terms that the coach deemed unacceptable. Whatever, the situation had become untenable for AD Long, whose eventual actions have been applauded by most in the college football sphere.

(We suspect it's got a lot of football people nervous elsewhere in the country, too.).

The next question is what will happen to a) Arkansas and b) Petrino. Where will the Razorbacks look for their new head coach?

Sources tell us that there is some sentiment to keep the job internalized for this season and give the gig on an interim basis to assistant coach Taver Johnson (who has been assigned temporarily leadership of the program) or perhaps new o.c. Paul Petrino, although hiring Bobby's brother for the top spot might prove awkward.

But with Arkansas looking locked and loaded for the coming season and with a legit Heisman Trophy candidate in QB Tyler Wilson, sources indicate that the administrators might be reluctant to go for an interim coach who they might be obliged to keep if the Razorbacks have a big year. (Sources say that Taver Johnson would not be a top candidate were the job to open up to outside applicants.) Thus, most insiders believe that AD Long looks outside of the program for his new coach and makes this is a full-time hiring instead.

Which, if it comes to pass, comes with its own awkward elements. No one in the region has forgotten what transpired at Alabama nine years ago in the last similar offseason dismissal, when Mike Price was canned before he even coached a game at Tuscaloosa. Back in 2003, Tide AD Mal Moore hired Mike Shula to succeed Price, but Price's staff stayed mostly intact for that season. It was never a proper fit for Shula, whose regime at Bama suffered as a result.

If a new coach is hired from outside the program, he'll probably be allowed to bring some assistants with him, which in turn has created some angst within the current Arkansas staff. These are some of the dilemmas that must be addressed by AD Long as he proceeds forward.

There are other byproducts of the awkward timing of the Petrino dismissal. The Arkansas job remains a coveted one, probably a top 20 program in the country. Moreover, it doesn't appear as if the new coach is going to be walking into a situation with NCAA penalties similar to those inherited by Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Instead, the new coach inherits a loaded team with a possible top pick in the NFL draft (Wilson) at QB. The only negatives would appear to be the controversies from the Petrino storyline, although those figure to eventually fade into the background. This is a rare chance for a coach to step into a tasty situation without worrying about pending NCAA penalties.

(Which is why hear some names such as Steve Mariucci are even throwing their hats in the ring for this rare opportunity to step into a powerhosue program without any pending NCAA penalties.)

So, the rumor mill, as could be expected, is whirring almost uncontrollably in Fayetteville regarding the opening. After culling our sources, following are those who appear to be the top candidates for the job.

Arkansas State HC Gus Malzahn...Gus might now be wondering why he took the Ark State job when he would have figured to be the solid favorite to get the Razorback post had he remained at Auburn as the offensive coordinator after last season. Malzahn, a high school coaching legend in Arkansas who worked for a year under Houston Nutt at Fayetteville in 2006 before coordinating high-powered attacks at Tulsa and Auburn, would be a preferred candidate for most Arkansas boosters. But sources tell us that Long might be reluctant to tap Malzahn and risk the wrath of Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a rabid Ark State alum who it is said would be furious if the Red Wolves' new coach was plucked away by the big state school before he ever had a chance to coach a game in Jonesboro. Those sorts of repercussions, if true, are something that neither Long nor anyone at Arkansas would rather worry about at the moment, which makes Malzahn a less-likely choice than it would seem. For what it's worth, some SEC observers believe Malzahn wanted to cut his head coaching teeth before casting his lot for what might have been a job opening at Georgia, although Mark Richt seems on much firmer ground in Athens than he was a year ago. Malzahn also has the benefit of being represented by regional super agent Jimmy Sexton, who reportedly has a good relationship with Arkansas AD Long. Still, many in the region suspect Malzahn-to-Arkansas won't happen.

UAB HC Garrick McGee...Fresh off of Petrino's staff where he served as offensive coordinator, McGee might involve the easiest transition on a few different fronts. First, he is familiar with the staff Petrino left behind, having been part of it himself, so any adjustments would figure to be minimal. Second, he seems a preference of many Razorback players who have already announced their support of his candidacy. Third, it would be easier politically for Arkansas to steal McGee from UAB than it would to steal Malzahn from in-state Ark State. While McGee would be a convenient hire, some insiders suspect that Long might be reluctant to look at McGee, who doesn't have any head coaching experience at this level. The thought among most in the region was that McGee would be getting a litmus test at UAB, and had he fared adequately, would have proven ready for a bigger assignment. But there are doubts within the Razorback community that McGee is the right choice, at least at this moment, for a job as big as Arkansas'.

Former North Carolina, Miami-Fla, and Cleveland Browns HC Butch Davis...Davis, an Arkansas alum who also has the benefit of being represented by Sexton, is apparently making a big push for consideration. And his candidacy has been helped by an exoneration from the NCAA for problems at North Carolina that resulted in his dismissal from the Tar Heels before last season. Still, the Razorbacks might be a bit reluctant to fish in Davis' waters, as some still wonder how those issues could have been happening at Chapel Hill (mostly involving improper benefits and implicating assistant John Blake) on Butch's watch. Davis' coaching star has also dulled somewhat after it reached its peak over a decade ago when reviving the Miami program. Most in the region consider Davis a possibility for the Arkansas job, but probably not the first choice of Long.

South Florida HC Skip Holtz...This would be a homecoming of sorts for Holtz, who spent his high school years in Fayetteville when papa Lou was the Razorback coach. But the elder Holtz' Arkansas tenure was long ago (1977-83), and the Holtz name might not have as much cachet in Fayetteville as some think, as Lou left rather abruptly for Minnesota amid chafing with AD Frank Broyles. It's never been known for sure if Broyles actually fired Holtz, but that Lou's regime ended uncomfortably has been acknowledged by all parties. Moreover, some Razorback fans might not cotton to the idea of having to bow to Lou if he inevitably shows up again in Fayetteville with his son as the coach. As for Skip, his candidacy would have been a bit more solid had his South Florida side not faded after a quick start last season and missed a bowl game, which was pretty difficult to do in last year's Big East. Sources say Skip is a harder sell than he would have been a year ago, although he would seem to rate at least an equal chance with Davis at the moment.

Louisville HC Charlie Strong...Don't dismiss the possibility of Strong, who is familiar with the SEC from his days on Urban Meyer's Florida staff and who has boosted the Cards' fortunes since his hiring before the 2010 campaign. Regional insiders have noted that Strong has dropped some hints of a pending move, critical of the lack of press coverage the 'Ville receives in the area and region. Louisville's future lot in the conference merry-go-round is also of potential concern, with the Cards rumored to be looking for an escape route out of the Big East (perhaps to the Big XII). Strong might also have his eyes on the possible opening next year at Tennessee (more on that in a minute), but most regional insiders suggest the Arkansas job is as good or better, especially at the moment, than the one in Knoxville.

Vanderbilt HC James Franklin...Franklin is a new hot commodity on the scene who made the Dores relevant in his first season in charge. Most in the region suspect Franklin is headed for greener pastures sometime soon (although Vandy is reportedly paying him very well, in the vicinity of $2 million per year). No word from Nashville, however, if Franklin would be interested, and Long might not want to ruffle feathers within the SEC by stealing a head coach from a conference member.

Mississippi State HC Dan Mullen...Mullen's name has been mentioned for several high-profile openings lately (including Penn State and Ohio State after last season), and he might have done all he could at Starkville. Most SEC sources expect Mullen to be on the move soon, although, as with Vanderbilt's Franklin above, they're not sure Long wants to poach a head coach from a conference member. Sources are also saying that if Mullen makes a move within the SEC, it would more likely be to Tennessee or perhaps Florida in a couple of years if Will Muschamp's regime doesn't take flight.

UL-Lafayette HC Mark Hudspeth...Familiar with the SEC from time spent on Mullen's MSU staff and considered a rising star in the coaching ranks after leading the Ragin' Cajuns to a New Orleans Bowl win last year. Had quickly squelched rumors about a possible move to Starkville had Mullen left MSU after last season, but would figure to be worth a call from Long nonetheless.

Alabama DC Kirby Smart...Another Jimmy Sexton client, who has been biding his time as Nick Saban's defensive coordinator. Some believe Smart, only 36, is going to simply wait around until Saban decides to retire and then take over the Tide program. Others are suggesting that Smart might be waiting for a possible opening next year at Tennessee. Interestingly, Smart was apparently not eager to cast his lot for the recent Ole Miss opening that was instead filled by Arkansas State's Hugh Freeze.

Former Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, Oklahoma State, and Miami-Florida HC Jimmy Johnson...Perhaps the wildest rumor, but one making the rounds nonetheless, has former Arkansas alum Johnson as a possible candidate. Because of that connection to the Broyles era, Johnson's name has always come up when the Razorback job has opened in the past, but he's never bitten. Others tell us the chances of Johnson leaving his Key West digs and cushy assignment as an NFL analyst for FOX TV are pretty remote.

Now, as for Petrino, most sources in the region expect that he will remain radioactive for a while but will likely get back into the coaching business at some time in the future. He's won too much in past jobs at Louisville and Arkansas to be overlooked, and while the personal baggage is considerable (remember that abrupt departure from the NFL Atlanta Falcons late in the 2007 season?), Petrino has not had serious problems with the NCAA in the past. If some AD is willing to take a risk on him, Petrino might be back in the saddle somewhere sooner than expected, perhaps even at one of these potential SEC openings on the horizon.

Tennessee...By losing its finale last year to Kentucky by a 10-7 count, against a Wildcat team that hadn't beaten the Vols since 1984, and with UK using a former wide receiver at QB and unable to throw the ball downfield, Derek Dooley thus put himself on the hottest of hot seats entering the 2012 campaign. That loss to UK also kept Tennessee from bowl eligibility and had the war drums beating immediately in Knoxville. With a new AD (Dave Hart) now in tow, Dooley has to win ASAP. Would the Vols consider Petrino, as some in the SEC believe? Our sources tell us that would be unlikely, as new AD Hart is tasked with running a clean ship (especially after the Bruce Pearl mess on the basketball side), and insiders who know Hart say he would be very unlikely to look Petrino's way if indeed Dooley gets the boot after this season.

Kentucky...The new "norm" for coaches to establish themselves at a big-time BCS school seems to be three years, which puts Kentucky's Joker Phillips on watch entering 2012 after the Cats slipped into irrelevance last season and missed the postseason for the first time since 2005. Moreover, UK was unwatchable at times in 2011, with QB issues a major concern. The trajectory has been downward the past two years in Lexington, and if the Cats don't pass the eye test again this fall and miss a bowl game once more, sources say Joker could be in trouble. And regional observers sources suggest Kentucky might be the most logical landing spot for a Petrino resurface in the SEC, given the hunger the school has to put a winner on the gridiron and the familiarity with Petrino from his success at nearby Louisville. Besides, if UK didn't blink to hire John Calipari in hoops, we doubt it would be scared enough to pass on Petrino.

Florida...Those who think Will Muschamp is safe in Gainesville need to recall the regime of Ron Zook, who lasted only three years after Steve Spurrier departed following the 2001 campaign. Muschamp's first Gator team was impaired by injuries but was still a disappointment and didn't clinch a winning mark until its bowl win over equally-subpar Ohio State. Muschamp cannot afford a succession of 7-6 and 8-5 seasons in Gainesville, and sources say his time on the clock at The Swamp will be no longer than Zook's.

We're not sure where Petrino resurfaces, but we suspect we'll be seeing him again. Sooner rather than later.

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