Welcome to the post-Penn State era of college athletics. Welcome to a world in which athletic directors and college administrators finally have the power again. Welcome to a time when football coaches are nothing more than just coaches.
There was just cause for Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long to fire Bobby Petrino.
Petrino, who’s married with four kids, lied to his boss and deceived him about the motorcycle accident that got the whole scandal rolling. He wasn’t honest about his relationship with Jessica Dorrell, an Arkansas employee he hired and gave a $20,000 gift. Petrino tried to cover up the situation as much as possible.
In the end, Long couldn’t trust the leader of the Arkansas football program anymore, even though there were plenty of warning signs from the start to suggest that this wasn’t a man who was going to change just because he said sorry.
While still the Louisville coach back in 2003, Petrino secretly met with Auburn about taking over a job still occupied by Tommy Tuberville. That was bad, but the “it’s not you, it’s me” letter he posted on the players’ lockers as he left the Atlanta Falcons was even worse.
Because of Petrino’s track record and reputation, Long didn’t and couldn’t take a chance on anything else happening down the road. Considering Long had to think of the school’s reputation, as well as making the first necessary step in case of potential sexual harassment lawsuits, firing Petrino was what Long had to do. However, in several ways, this is a unique situation with the move representing a new chapter and a new era in college sports.
Before all the controversies of last year, would a Southeastern Conference head coach of a potential top-five, national-championship-caliber team get fired for lying to his boss?
Would any star coach of a money-making juggernaut — Forbes recently ranked Arkansas as the eighth-most-profitable college football program — in the same situation as Petrino have been canned before everything that happened last year? Petrino is hardly the first coach to be outed for having an affair, and he’s certainly not the first to be less-than-honest with his superiors.
Petrino didn’t get fired for breaking any laws. He has not gone because he broke an NCAA rule or because his players got in any sort of trouble. He was fired for his "manipulating and deceiving behavior," and that sets a new precedent.
The athletic director and the schools are now more powerful than the superstar head football coach. And that’s how it should be.
This wasn’t some disposable Sun Belt coach being tossed aside. There isn’t any massive institutional cover-up of alleged child molestation. Petrino isn’t charged with hiding damning evidence to protect players who violated NCAA rules, and he isn’t being nailed with any recruiting violations.
He isn’t in hot water for overpaying for phony-baloney scouting reports. No one died after falling from a tower during an “unremarkable” wind storm. There aren’t any academic issues, there aren’t any problems with the players and Petrino isn’t being accused of any wrongdoing in terms of the football program.
A star SEC coach in the prime of his career, and with a whopper of a team, basically got canned for making his boss really mad. Sure, there might have been just cause, but Long’s decision was his and he could have gone either way.
The lying was enough to ruin a possible dream season for a jacked-up fan base and a team on the verge of breaking through and becoming the next college football superpower. Normally, considering the boosters and fans would usually be forcefully on the side of whatever kept the wins coming, Petrino would have needed to do far more to lose his job. Making this all the more sudden was that Long and Arkansas made sure the coach was locked up airtight for as long as possible while wanting to keep the coach happy — everything was great at Arkansas until 10 days ago.
Long came out and said that firing Petrino was purely an in-house matter. If all of this happened just a year ago, before the Penn State debacle and after all the bad press Ohio State and Miami received, there probably would’ve been a different outcome.
More than likely, if this went by the pre-2011 playbook, Long would have put Petrino on double secret probation to go along with a grand statement about how there wouldn’t be any second chances. Petrino would have had a big press conference with an Ozzie Guillen-like mea culpa before claiming he needed counseling of some sort. Then he would have babbled something about how he and his wife were praying it all away before claiming he was a changed man, and it all would have been wrapped up in a nice, neat, "Woooooo Pig Sooey" to make all the Hogs fans know that their dream season was still a possibility.
Petrino probably would have been suspended for the first two games against Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe — games Arkansas could win with your mom as the head coach — and then he would’ve been back in time for Alabama on Sept. 15.
But that didn’t happen, and now will come the fascinating test to see how this all plays out.
The new head coach won’t get any grace period. For all of Petrino’s faults, he’s still a whale of a college football coach and he left a heater or a team that under normal circumstances would probably be No. 4 in the preseason rankings behind USC, Alabama and LSU. The Hogs are supposed to contend for the SEC title and be a factor in the BCS championship hunt, but now they’ll have to do it without Petrino.
Now Arkansas football has to show that it really is bigger than one head coach, and the pressure will be on Long to find the right guy with the right personality who can also produce like Petrino did, while also being able to get down and dirty in the SEC recruiting wars. This won’t be easy.
But even if this is a disappointing year, Long showed the world that the University of Arkansas runs the football program, and not the other way around. He showed other athletic directors and administrators that it really is okay to put the school’s integrity first and sports second.
Bobby Petrino didn’t embarrass the University of Arkansas. He embarrassed himself, while Long did the school, the students, the alumni, and the football program proud.
Take note, college coaches. No matter who you are and what you’ve done, after Joe Paterno was fired, Jim Tressel “retired,” and now this, you are not, nor will you ever be, more important than the school.