|Long finds it hard to speak at times during his press conference to announce Petrino's termination. (AP)|
After what has happened in college football in the past 12 months, it's hard not to be cynical:
• Jim Tressel lied to the NCAA and was let go at Ohio State before the 2011 season began.
• Butch Davis had tutors paying off parking tickets for players, who also committed academic fraud. Davis was fired less than 48 hours after ACC Media Days in July.
• Joe Paterno, as solid a rock as there has ever been in this sport, was fired in November in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal at Penn State. By late January he was dead.
So it has been tough on all of us who love college football and believe -- or still desperately want to believe -- there is still more good than bad in the sport.
But in Arkansas' decision to fire coach Bobby Petrino Tuesday night, I have found a ray of hope. Integrity was again under assault from the blind ambition and arrogance that permeates college athletics. And integrity finally won.
I have to confess that I didn't think athletics director Jeff Long would be able to pull the trigger on Petrino, whose hubris in this process obviously knew no bounds. There was no doubt that Petrino DESERVED to be fired. That was never a debatable question.
He carried on an "inappropriate" relationship with a 25-year-old woman whom he later hired for his football program. In doing so violated university policy. He gave this same woman a "gift" of $20,000 before handing her a job that paid more than $50,000 a year. Petrino hung Long, who was supposedly a friend, out to dry with his lies and his unshakeable belief that his ability to win football games (21-5 the past two seasons) would conquer all.
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Now Petrino had good reason to believe he was bulletproof and would ultimately survive this tawdry episode. Since he ran out on the Atlanta Falcons in the middle of the night with three games left in the 2007 season, Petrino has built Arkansas into a top-10 football program. Arkansas is currently building a $40 million football complex. The money -- and there is a lot of it in Arkansas -- had begun pouring into the program. Everybody wants to invest in a winner.
Petrino is a most unlikeable human being. Remember this is the same guy who stabbed another friend, Tommy Tuberville, in the back with a clandestine meeting with Auburn officials in 2003.
But Petrino, for all of his shortcomings as a man, is also a helluva football coach.
He got results. In his second season at Arkansas he led the Hogs to 10 wins and a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
Last season the Razorbacks (11-2) lost only to No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 LSU -- the two teams that played for the national championship. And with quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis returning -- and with Alabama and LSU both coming to Fayetteville -- this was setting up to be a monster season for the Hogs.
Under those kinds of circumstances -- with so much on the line -- conventional wisdom says you just don't fire the head coach no matter what the transgressions. In today's college football environment, especially in the take-no-prisoners SEC, you find a way to muddle through. You cut his salary in half. You suspend him for a couple of games but have him in place by the time the Razorbacks host Alabama on Sept. 15. You put him on double secret probation. You hire the best crisis management team in the nation.
With a fan base convinced that THIS was going to be the year that Arkansas was going to move to the next level -- the championship level -- you simply find a way to keep the head coach in place. At least that is what I thought.
But Jeff Long didn't do that. Fighting back tears and clearly distraught and hurt, he stood in front of a media audience and delivered the single worst beat down I have ever heard by an administrator on a coach. It was a well-deserved beat down, to be sure. Still, it was surprising.
As hard as it was for Long to step up and do the right thing and to show extraordinary leadership, the really hard part is just beginning. In the aftermath of Tuesday's press conference, Long and Arkansas will be praised for their integrity and deservedly so. But if Long can't hire another coach as good as Petrino who can keep the program on an upward cycle, he could be gone by the New Year. And that would be a shame.
Here is the reality: If Arkansas dips to only seven or eight wins in 2012, there will be those who believe Long overreacted to a crisis that could have been managed. They will say that Arkansas could have weathered this storm and kept a talented, but flawed coach in place. Those people will be wrong, of course.
This is where the Chancellor G. David Gearhart steps up and supports his athletics director 1,000 percent. This is where the Arkansas Board of Trustees closes ranks and reminds their alumni that they represent a university, not a football program.
Is this going to hurt? If you love Arkansas damn right it hurts. This is not good for Arkansas and it's not good for the SEC. And it is just horrible for those kids who play football for Arkansas. They don't deserve this.
Arkansas, the football program, lost a coach Tuesday night. But Arkansas, the university, gained a lot of respect. For some that may not be as important or fulfilling as beating Alabama. But it should be.