(Update at 10 p.m. This column is a rewrite of the previous version to reflect Bobby Petrino’s firing.)
(Update II at 10:45 p.m. I’ve added Petrino’s statement on his firing below the column. My standard reaction: I judge people by actions, not words.)
Once you get past the emotional side that says Bobby Petrino just got run over by the karma train, once you get past the misguided Arkansas fans who started a Facebook page in support of their morally bankrupt coach and carried signs such as, “What’s wrong with scoring in the offseason?” this much is clear: Arkansas had no choice.
Bobby Petrino went 21-5 in the last two seasons as a football coach in the SEC. He’s out of a job. What does that tell you?
This is a sport where college presidents and athletic directors have been known to give only lip service to matters of academic reform and ethics — and whatever flawed mindset exists in other conferences, it’s safe to multiply that by 10 in the SEC. What Petrino did, however, exposed a public university to too much litigation and potential financial damages.
Petrino apparently gave Jessica Dorrell $20,000. Athletic director Jeff Long couldn’t say for certain what that payment was for, but it’s safe to assume that Arkansas generally doesn’t give the “student-athlete development coordinator” a $20,000 signing bonus.
The unimaginable pain Petrino has inflicted on his family – having an “inappropriate relationship” with a 25-year-old former Arkansas volleyball player – is for him, his wife, his children and their God to sort out. But the fact that Petrino’s relationship was with an athletic-department employee – a women whom he had hired only a week earlier – set up the university for a possible sexual harassment suit.
This wasn’t just about a head coach and his philandering. It’s not just about Petrino scrambling to cover up the circumstances of his motorcycle accident, most notably that he had a female passenger who was half his age on the back seat. If character was a priority, Arkansas
never would have hired Petrino to begin with. Everybody knew his resume. In fact, Long would be out of a job himself. He interviewed Petrino without the Falcons’ permission four years ago while the coach was under contract to Atlanta and the team was still in the middle of a season.
This wasn’t up to Long anymore than it was up to the blithering protesting fans who were screaming, “Woo Pig Sooie!” at
rally for Petrino Monday. It was up to his bosses, the smart people, who realized this could cost the university millions.
Long, probably reading from a script written by Arkansas attorneys, said Petrino “made the decision to mislead the public,” which “adversely affected the university and the football program.” He referenced “manipulative behavior.” He said Petrino was fired “with cause.”
All of this is Latin for: “There’s a morals clause in your contract and you won’t see a nickel of that $21 million.”
So many Arkansas fans don’t get it, and don’t want to get it. Matt Couch, the Arkansas fan who organized Monday’s protest, played to his audience: “None of us are condoning what he did, but we know it’s Easter weekend, a time for forgiveness. And most importantly, we all want to win some football games, don’t we?”
And there it is. Never mind the broken family. Never mind that Dorrell herself was engaged to another coach in the athletic department. What’s really important is that Petrino went 11-2 and not 7-6 last season. Also, there’s next year’s Alabama game.
Sports and fandom can blind good and normal people. They lose all sense of rational thought and perspective. We see it when an athlete is embraced as a hero, a need, regardless of his disregard for laws, ethics or moral decency, simply because of his statistics and the team’s place in the standings.
We saw it this past year on the campus of Penn State, when fans protested in support of Joe Paterno, with no thought or regard for the children who are the subject of horrible sex-abuse allegations.
We see it now.
“I’m not surprised by much anymore,” said Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. “Our culture, particularly our sports culture, is so directed at winning that on campuses too many people overlook what appear to be egregious acts by coaches and athletes. Upon reflection, they might change their opinion. I think we saw that at Penn State when students protested right away, but after a while there was a more balanced assessment.”
Arkansas couldn’t afford to wait for fan logic to take over. They did the right thing.
By Jeff Schultz
“I was informed in writing today at 5:45 p.m. that I was being terminated as head football coach at the University of Arkansas.
The simplest response I have is: I’m sorry. These two words seem very inadequate. But that is my heart. All I have been able to think about is the number of people I’ve let down by making selfish decisions. I’ve taken a lot of criticism in the past. Some deserved, some not deserved. This time, I have no one to blame by myself.
I chose to engage in an improper relationship. I also made several poor decisions following the end of that relationship and in the aftermath of the accident. I accept full responsibility for what has happened.
I’m sure you heard (athletic director) Jeff Long’s reasons for termination. There was a lot of information shared. Given the decision that has been made, this is not the place to debate Jeff’s view of what happened. In the end, I put him in the position of having to sort through my mistakes and that is my fault.
I have hurt my wife Becky and our four children. I’ve let down the University of Arkansas, my team, coaching staff and everyone associated with the Razorback football program. As a result of my personal mistakes, we will not get to finish our goal of building a championship program. I wish that I had been given the opportunity to meet with the players and staff prior to this evening’s press conference and hope that I will be given the opportunity to give my apologies and say my goodbyes in person. We have left the program in better shape than we found it and I want the Razorback Nation to know that is my hope that the program achieves the success it deserves.
My sole focus at this point is trying to repair the damage I’ve done to my family. They did not ask for any of this and deserve better. I am committed to being a better husband, father and human being as a result of this and will work each and every day to prove that to my family, friends and others.
I love football. I love coaching. I of course hope I can find my way back to the profession I love. In the meantime, I will do everything I can to heal the wounds I have created.
I want to thank Chancellor Gearhart, Jeff Long, the Board of Trustees, the university administration, faculty, staff, students, alumni and fans for the opportunity to serve as the head football coach at the University of Arkansas for the past four years. I was not given an opportunity to continue in that position. I wish that had been the case, but that was not my decision. I wish nothing but the best for the Razorback football program, the University and the entire Razorback Nation.”