Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jeff Long Makes the Right Choice For Arkansas

     Jeff Long had a very difficult decision to make over this past weekend. His head football coach, Bobby Petrino had been in a motorcycle accident, the details of which were sketchy at best, and this one careless accident created a growing shockwave that would lead to a moment in the spotlight for Athletic Director Jeff Long, one that he never would have wanted. Once the dust cloud settled from that momentus accident, and all of the information had become public, not always (or even often) by genuine means, Long was left with the unenviable task of making a decision to keep or fire Petrino. Some of us could look at the bare boned facts and make the initial decision based on cold logic that Petrino had to go. Others of us could look at the darker side of sports, and claim that Petrino should be saved for reasons that I'll explain later. Long, as it turned out, had one hell of a ponderous decision to make.
     Looking at this situation from top to bottom, you have to look at it for the facts first. On March 28, 2012, Bobby Petrino hired Jessica Dorrell, a former Arkansas student and volleyball player, as his new Student Athlete Development Coordinator. Her job was to help with recruiting and eligibility issues regarding incoming and current Arkansas football players. What was not known when this hiring occurred was that Dorrell and Petrino were already engaged in an affair. Dorrell is 25, and was engaged to the Arkansas Swimming and Diving Coach. Petrino is 51, married, and is the father of four. Dorrell was one of three finalists for the job out of 159 applicants for the position, and was hired much to fast to comply with the schools affirmative action hiring practices.
     We did not know any of this information, and would never have cared, if Bobby Petrino had not been involved in a motorcycle accident on April 1, 2012. This accident was called a single motorcycle accident, and according to a statement from the university, much of it coming from initial police reports and Bobby Petrino himself, no other individual was involved, much less injured. Petrino suffered a fractured vertabrae in his neck, and several other relatively minor injuries. The official statement from Arkansas regrding Petrino being the sole person involved in this accident came on April 2, 2012.
     On April 3, 2012, Petrino was released from the hospital, and returned to the university, which was in the midst of spring practice. He was wearing a bulky neck brace, and he met with the media. He admitted to not wearing a helmet, and conveniently remembered very little about the accident other than the sun shining in his eyes. I'm sure it was...
     On April 5th, the story took a strange turn, as a police report emerged stating that Petrino was not exactly alone, and Bobby was having a bit of convenient memory loss. It turns out that Bobby had a female passenger on the back of the bike that was not exactly his beloved spouse. Naughty Bobby had to come clean to his boss, as his memory fog cleared. He was indeed riding his bike with Dorrell, pictured below:

This little nugget of information leads this situation into a tumble. Jeff Long immediately (and rightly) places Petrino on paid administrative leave while he sets up a deeper investigation into the relationship between Dorrell and Petrino, and Tavar Johnson is named as the interim coach while the investigation takes place. Petrino released a statement to the press, but does not appear in person. His statement admits to an inappropriate relationship with Dorrell. Petrino did not exactly come to making this announcement all on his own, however. Twenty minutes before the police released their report of the accident, Petrino was tipped off by his personal bodyguard, a state trooper, about what would be in the report. Bobby had to come clean. Had the report reflected what Petrino wanted it to say, we'd still be in the dark about everything that happened. On April 6, the 911 call was released, where the person calling in to the authorities reported a female passenger that had been uninjured, leaving nothing more to be "foggy" about the situation.
     On April 10, after a long and grueling process of an investigation, and after speaking with the hierarchy of the administration at Arkansas, Long had come to a decision. A press conference was called for 7:15 that evening, and Long announced his intention to fire Bobby Petrino with cause. This was a decision that men like Long are hired to make, but nobody envies them of it. It could not have been as cut and dried, as simple as it may seem.
     There were more items that were released in regards to this situation, the more it painted Petrino as an over privilidged insolent child. He had given $20,000 in cash to Dorrell out of his own funding. He was carrying on with an affair that not only was an afront to his wife and four kids, but was also an afront to a fellow coach on staff who was engaged to Dorrell. Lives were wrecked on both sides, like they often are in situations like this.
     Petrino had initially lied to Long about his relationship with Dorrell. Even though the situation surrounding her hiring was far from normal. He lied to his boss about the accident, lied to his boss about the whole thing. That would get any normal employee terminated from employment.
      Here is why this decision was far from easy. First, as we live in a highly cynical society, was the fact that Arkansas was WINNING! Petrino took Arkansas to a BCS Bowl, had won 10 and 11 games the last two seasons. They were an early favorite to supplant Alabama and LSU in the SEC West this season.
     Money is a concern. According to reports, Arkansas has a collective value of 59% more than what is worth when the school hired Petrino in 2009. The school is constructing a new $40 million football facility. Season tickets are moving like crazy as Arkansas is in position to compete for a national title in 2012. Most of these mentioned issues would be tempting to any administartion to keep the embattled coach, despite the slime.
     What Long chose to do was (gulp) fire the cash cow. Long stated that no individual was bigger than the school or the program. In other words, in a world where the right thing rarely occurs, Long made the right choice. He chose a moral compass above and beyond winning at all costs. He chose a path so rarely travelled, that it was the first time that I can remember a decision in sports that didn't make me immediately feel as if I needed a shower. It was refreshing to see a man and an administration travel a course that could be looked up to by the very students and families that they represent, and who represent them in change. It certainly sent a message that Arkansas has taken the course of wanting to not only win, but win the right way, a way that they could be proud of.
     Petrino didn't do anything that we know of that would bring NCAA scrutiny to the front, but it was an open door to let Petrino do more down the road that would have created more damage to the reputation of an institution of higher learning. It's a lesson that has been learned far too many times by far too many current and former ADs to mention here.
     What Long chose to do was become a beacon for what should happen when coaches go renegade and start acting like petulant children. It could not have been easy, and I am sure to a large degree, Long feels empty and isolated. He had to tell his football players that their coach would not return, had to tell them to carry on despite this, and had to look at the broken hearts of kids that had vowed to follow Petrino into battle. He had to tell them all of this, all the time full knowing that their chances of competing for that national title may have very well taken a giant hit for reasons that had nothing to do with their performance as a team. That's not easy to do, and it would have been far too tempting to go the other way. Long took the hard road, which is usually the right one. In this case, it certainly was.
     Long had to explain to a rabid fan base that he made this decision, all the while knowing that it could damage prospects for this season and beyond. He had to ask them to understand and accept this. He had to, I am sure, take some shots from s strong base of donors, the suits and money bags that always enable people like Petrino. He had to tell them that while Petrino was gone, that they needed to move forward and tow the line. How comfortable do you think that this was for him?
     At the end, Long stated that he was committed to providing strong leadership to his student athletes. That being said, I say this: Well done Jeff Long! Not only is he providing said leadership, he is providing a fine example of a man who can lead from the right side of the road in an age where cynisism and winning at all costs has blinded us to right and wrong. He has provided a beacon of light in a dark time for our kids to look up to. He has provided a lesson for us all, that although it is never easy, doing the right thing is above all. Jeff Long certainly did that this week.

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