When Bobby Petrino was the head football coach at the University of Louisville, he interviewed with Auburn University to replace Tommy Tuberville, who had been his boss, giving him a break in his career. He initially denied the 2003 meeting before admitting to it. Four years later, when he was recruited away from the Atlanta Falcons with just three games left in the season, he left a short statement in the players’ lockers shortly after telling the team’s owner he wasn’t going anywhere.
None of this is news to anyone who follows football. So, when Petrino’s character was again on the line thanks to the scandal that prompted his firing Tuesday from the University of Arkansas, few seemed surprised. ESPN’s Time Keown writes that “the character questions began long before he was hired and then released as Arkansas’ head coach.” And Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Rosenberg opines that “if we were playing a game, and you asked me to guess which major-college coach hired his mistress to work with his football program, got in a motorcycle accident with her on board, then lied to his bosses about the relationship, I could have guessed ‘Bobby Petrino’ faster than it takes him to print out his resume.”
Such scoffing gives little credit to athletic director Jeff Long, who put integrity first in making this decision and was visibly shaken in a news conference about the effect Petrino’s actions would have on Arkansas players. Still, there’s truth to the criticism. Until a history of questionable actions has real consequences for leaders, rather than leading to a period of exile that ends all too quickly in our forgive-and-forget society, the pattern of putting winning before character will continue.
For those who have not been following the Petrino story, it encapsulates behavior that is antithetical to what one would want from a person leading student-athletes. After being involved in a motorcycle accident (in which he was not wearing a helmet), Petrino said he was the only individual on the bike. Several days later, a police report revealed that Petrino had in fact been with a 25-year-old employee of the athletic department who he had recently hired for a new job. Just before the police report was made public, Petrino told Long about his companion on the bike, with whom, it turned out, he had had an inappropriate relationship.
In a news conference explaining his decision to terminate Petrino, Long highlighted the “misleading and manipulative” behavior from his coach. He said Petrino was given “multiple opportunities” over four days to come clean about what happened, but chose not to. And he got emotional when he spoke about the lack of leadership and the impact it would have on Petrino’s players. “I’m committed to providing them with the leadership—leadership that’s befitting of our mission to develop student athletes to their fullest potential through intercollegiate athletics,” Long said, adding “our expectations of character and integrity in our employees can be no less than what we expect from our students. No single individual can be bigger than the team.”
Denying secretive interview and leaving town without saying goodbye in person may not be the same as staying mum about an inappropriate relationship with a young staffer. Raw ambition and an unwillingness to face up to professional players may not be as questionable as giving a staffer a job in a college football program who had “an unfair and undisclosed advantage.” Still, my guess is that when Long goes to hire a replacement for Petrino, a good hard look at the character questions in any candidate’s past will be at the top of his agenda.