Bobby Petrino’s actions don’t deserve any more words.
Instead, let's spend a few words on Jeff Long – an athletic director who, at long last, seems to belong at an institution of higher learning.
Long's press conference Tuesday announcing the firing of Petrino was a lesson for all other ADs – especially those who have failed miserably to be the adult in a relationship with coaches who act like children. We've seen far too many examples of authority figures who wilt in the moment when authority is most needed. We're looking at you, Gene Smith of Ohio State and Tim Curley at Penn State. But there are so many more. Way too many.
Yes, winning is important. Yes, money is on the line. And let's not fail to mention that Long took a risk in hiring Petrino in the first place. It's not like the guy came with an unblemished reputation. But by squashing Petrino's career at Arkansas on Tuesday night, Long reminded us the university is there to raise standards, not ignore them. The university is there for teenagers who are living away from home for the first time and placing their trust in a virtual stranger to make them better.
Long went a long way toward earning back that trust Tuesday.
Sure, the argument can be made that Long had no other choice. Petrino paid off an employee, Jessica Dorrell, to the tune of $20,000. He helped her candidacy for a job that had 159 other applicants, and made sure it was, in Long's words, ''shorter than our normal affirmative action hiring process.'' And (as if that wasn't enough), Petrino lied to his bosses about his motorcycle accident and an adulterous relationship. Open and shut case, right?
Yet how many of us thought Arkansas would look the other way instead of doing the right thing because it had a top-10 team and huge home games this season? How many of us thought Arkansas brass would choose the shame of letting a rascal skate over the shame of losing to Alabama after firing the guy who won 11 games last year? Keeping Petrino would have made Arkansas a punch line for a week. Firing him makes the program a potential punching bag for a season, or longer – in a state without a pro franchise or another major university. Remember Rick Pitino and his ugly incident in a restaurant? He just made the Final Four. Think any replacement coach would have done that? Unlikely. Pitino's a hero now, and Louisville fans are likely thanking their lucky stars he was kept.
Long surely knew the risks. And he went ahead anyway.
"I realize this decision may not sit will with some Razorbacks fans in Arkansas and across the country," Long said Tuesday, facing the oncoming rush of resentment head-on. Long then swallowed hard and relayed how he informed the players of his decision. That must have been a lonely moment, telling an elite team with a chance at a national title that the coach they followed to school was gone. Long was momentarily overcome, in front of all the cameras, and it was clear he didn't just look at those players as players. He looked at them as kids. It was Petrino who let them down, but Long felt he was breaking their hearts.
Long's emotions behind the microphone were as inspiring as any rah-rah locker room speech given 10 minutes before kickoff. More so, actually, because it's easy for a coach to tell his players to go out and perform. It's much harder for an AD to tell student-athletes that performance on the field comes second.
"I asked them to try to remain focused on their academics and finishing spring practice," Long said, taking a swig of water and taking a long moment to steady himself.
He then continued, nodding: "I am committed to providing them with leadership … leadership befitting our mission to develop student-athletes to their fullest potential."
And then Long dropped the hammer: "Our expectations of character and integrity in our employees can be no less than what we expect from our students."
Thank you. It's not OK when an employee of a major university covers up misdeeds – whether as stupid as selling gear for tattoos or as heinous as molesting a child. It's not OK when a coach lies to bosses, to fans, to taxpayers. It's not OK just because the team makes a bowl game. Because when a coach regards the people around him as commodities to be bought or sold, surely the players will as well. And that corrupts a university to its very core.
[ Photo gallery: Former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, Jessica Dorrell ]
See, the problem with college football is not really the guys in the headsets; many of them are glory-driven egomaniacs who have traded in their moral compass for an Escalade. The problem is the people in the suits and ties. They are the enablers, the glad-handers, the pushovers who only say yes until honor is compromised. Then, when they have the chance to do the right thing, they say no. Or they say nothing.
Long said no to his coach and said yes to his university. Sadly, it's hard to think of another example of that recently. Ohio State sure didn't have a problem with Jim Tressel coaching in the Sugar Bowl against Petrino's Razorbacks. Oregon still employs Chip Kelly long after a Yahoo! Sports report detailing a $25,000 payment to a recruiting scout. And on and on.
"At his best," Aristotle said, "man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law & justice he is the worst."
It's the job of the AD (and the school president) to apply law and justice to the head coach. That's much easier said than done in the BCS era. And although Long hired Petrino from the Falcons in a sketchy manner, he made up for it Tuesday with his own brand of law and justice. His stern speech should be the model for other ADs.
Some will say there's a stain on Arkansas now. Some will say top coaches and recruits will be scared off. Maybe so. But Jeff Long has already done a great deal to blot out what the former head coach left behind. He made the right choice Tuesday. If Long sticks to his promise to finding a coach with "character," he'll make the right choice when it's time to find a new leader. And by providing strength where so many others have offered only weakness, he's made Arkansas, in one important respect, the class of college football.
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