- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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There was a common, reflexive sentiment wafting over the fine mess created by Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino's public display of Stage IV midlife crisis. Before the university parted company with Petrino on Tuesday, we were constantly told what a difficult decision this was for athletic director Jeff Long.
Over and over, it was posed as a major moral dilemma for Long, when in reality he made the only decision a right-thinking person could. Allowing Petrino to continue as a leader of college student-athletes -- scoff if you must, but the NCAA mandates the terminology -- was nearly impossible.
The only place it might have seemed to be a difficult decision is inside the strange world of SEC football, where some people saw fit to attend a pro-Petrino rally on Monday night and carry bizarre signs such as "Blonde hair/Don't Care" and "What's wrong with scoring in the offseason?"
But in the world in which most of us reside, it was purely an employment issue, which admittedly is far less sexy than the details of a 51-year-old married father of four crashing a motorcycle (helmetless) with a 25-year-old young woman (equally helmetless) clinging to his waist. Then again, conditions of employment are rarely as sexy as the situations they are called upon to govern.
Petrino is a good football coach. That much is indisputable, and his departure from Arkansas doesn't change that. Until now, his coaching ability has served as a shield to rebuff any and all questions about his character. He has been primarily about Bobby Petrino since he began coaching, and the requirements of the industry allowed him to remain wealthy and successful despite repeated questions about his personal and professional ethics.
(In his first season as coach at Louisville, he held a secret meeting with Auburn officials about replacing Tommy Tuberville and lied about it before finally admitting it. He bailed on the Atlanta Falcons at midseason to sign with Arkansas in 2007, leaving a note in his players' lockers hours after shaking owner Arthur Blank's hand and affirming his commitment to the franchise.)
It's clear, then, that the character questions began long before he was hired and then released as Arkansas' coach, which means Long had to ask himself some simple questions leading up to Tuesday evening's decision: How many different ways did this guy embarrass the university and play his bosses for fools, and how many wins would it take to forgive them? Apparently, the answers were equally simple: There aren't enough wins on anybody's schedule to keep Petrino on board and wonder what might come next.
At the time of the accident, Petrino was with 25-year-old Jessica Dorrell, with whom he eventually admitted to having something more than a motorcycle relationship. Dorrell was hired on to a staff position in the football department in late March -- another employment issue, one assumes, that contributed to Petrino's fate.
Petrino described his relationship with Dorrell in the past tense, but if you believe the relationship was over before the Harley ride, you have to do one of two things: (1) account for why Petrino handled the aftermath of the accident the way he did or (2) believe Petrino. Proceed at your own risk.
The cheating, if that's what it is or was, is mostly irrelevant to Petrino's firing. Petrino lied to his supervisors about the accident, going so far as to stand at a podium at a news conference and offer a version of the events that was, at best, half-true. Through interviews with people who came upon the scene, and the police report, the truth trickled out. After the accident, he told passers-by not to call 911 and hopped a ride to some unknown location before ending up in the car of a state trooper who serves as game-day security. The trooper took Dorrell to her car and Petrino to a hospital.
Give the man this: That was some good game management right there.
On an ESPN television report Sunday, several Fayetteville folks were interviewed about the Petrino situation. A woman who appeared to be in her 30s, wearing a Razorbacks T shirt and standing near two small boys carrying baseball gloves, said that Petrino has lost a lot of respect in the community but that he shouldn't be fired because "it has nothing to do with football." On Monday night, a crowd estimated at 200 gathered on the Arkansas campus for that a pro-Petrino rally.
So many questions.
First, how do presumably functioning citizens manage to completely lose their stuff when the topic is sports? How do you sign up for a job in which your behavior -- lying to your boss, publicly and persistently, while attempting to obscure the embarrassing details of your behavior -- is separate from your terms of employment?
Nothing to do with football Football was the man's job, and the man lied to his superiors about a damaging, embarrassing situation. (And potentially litigious to the university, as I'm guessing a few sharp lawyers have informed Ms. Dorrell.) It might have had nothing to do with football -- you know, the X's and O's and when to call a timeout in the late moments of a close game -- but it had everything to do with the man's employment, which, as we've established, just happened to be football.
Long and the Arkansas administration stood up for something. They decided against winning at all costs, which was the only argument for Petrino.
That's it. In the end, the right decision was the easiest decision. No need for the fainting couch. It makes no difference to most of us whether Petrino continued as the coach of the Arkansas football team. Without miscreants and liars, college football would lose much of its appeal. But it's remarkable how big-time sports -- professional or otherwise -- repeatedly get divorced from real life. People lose their stuff. Normal rules don't apply.
And that's why it's mildly surprising that Arkansas, which knew what it had in Petrino long before he skidded off the road, decided to fire him. As it turns out, the really tough decision they made came in 2007, when Petrino was announced as the head coach. But then again, you already knew that.
5dDavid M. Hale