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P.S.R. Op-Ed

Long Puts Arkansas First, Firing Petrino

Jeff Long shot down any rumor that Bobby Petrino was given an opportunity to remain the head coach at Arkansas if he had accepted a handful of university-mandated penalties, as was first believed. There was no meeting of the minds, two sides across the negotiating table. Long didn’t extend an olive branch, hoping Petrino would meet Arkansas in the middle and allow both parties to exit and resume normal activities with dignity. “There was no negotiation,” Long said at last night’s press conference. Petrino was fired with cause, and according to Long, there was no way Petrino “could remain our football coach.” He reiterated this point twice, hammering home the message: Arkansas is bigger than Bobby Petrino. No one is bigger than Arkansas.

According to Joe Schad of ESPN.com, the university decided after a thorough review of last Sunday’s incident that Petrino had “knowingly deceived and acted inappropriately” in hiring Jessica Dorrell, his passenger that night, as the football program’s student-athlete development coordinator.

Last Thursday, Petrino admitted to having a “previous inappropriate relationship” with Dorrell; clearly, Arkansas’ investigation found that this relationship led to Dorrell being hired by Petrino, which would in turn mark a significant violation of the university’s hiring practices.

“He had multiple opportunities to be forthcoming with me and chose otherwise,” said Long, but Petrino failed to admit to the full extent of the relationship. What Petrino did admit, but not until later last week, was that he gave Dorrell $20,000 in cash. Long wouldn’t comment further on the payment, calling it a “personnel matter.”

So ends an era, as short as it was, and it ends in pure Petrino fashion: with noise, with anger, with more than a small amount of frustration. The most stunning aspect of his dismissal doesn’t stem from a belief that it wasn’t justified, because it was.

What’s stunning is that Long, given the chance, actually went through with the whole thing. It’s amazing to see a premier program did what it felt was the right thing, not the easiest thing.

Even with the overwhelming evidence at hand, this move took guts rarely seen in major college sports. Think this was easy for Long? Don’t be fooled: Petrino was a lot of things, but he was a wonderful football coach. In taking this step, Long and the university take a chance of alienating a fan base that had accepted Petrino with open arms.

Houston Nutt wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to accept penalties, if it came to that; he would have been shown the door before the end of last week. Less talented coaches don’t survive dismissal-worthy misconduct, but the general belief — especially in the SEC, in all places — is that anything less than N.C.A.A. rule-breaking is survivable if you win enough games. Not quite.

Long, who had to stop several times during the press conference to compose himself, said that “no single individual is bigger than the team.” The team trumps all, as Long noted last night.

The vital lesson for coaches, administrators and athletic departments big and small across the country: no one is bigger than the university — than this specific university, in this case. Arkansas has sent a shot across the bow, and it’ll send ripples across the country. From here on out, head coaches who worship at their own altar will do so knowing that one of their own did so and lost.

And if push ever did come to shove, that’s where Petrino jumped the shark. Asked if he felt Petrino put himself above the university, Long replied simply, “yes.” That’s the biggest indictment of Petrino’s entire tenure, bigger than any misdeed, payment or inter-office romance: Arkansas comes first, not the football team, and certainly not the football coach.

Long didn’t blink; he did what was best for the university, not what’s best for Arkansas’ football program. What’s next? “I will… begin a search for a new head coach after this press conference,” said Long. For Arkansas’ athletic director, the university comes first, last and always. Petrino put Petrino first, last and always.

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  1. Hokieshibe says:

    Kudos to Arkansas for doing the right thing. They were stuck between a rock and a hard place there, so it’s nice to see then choosing integrity over wins.

    On a side note, it’s also nice to see him get his comeuppance after weaseling around on Louisville and the Atlanta Falcons…

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