Integrity is More Important than Sports Victories

Jeff Long was in a no-win situation.

Placed in a difficult place by Bobby Petrino’s personal life (an affair) that had begun to impact his duties as Arkansas’ football coach (hiring his mistress for an administrative position with the football team), Long had two choices: Fire Petrino for cause and upset a fan base that expected the team to be ranked in the preseason top 10 or ignore the situation and allow Petrino to do damage to the school’s public image while, likely, placating fans and supporters.

Long should be applauded for doing the right thing. When many expected that Petrino would not be held to any moral standards as a football coach, Long said otherwise. By doing so, Long set a precedent that, hopefully, many schools will follow.

That is integrity is more important any amount of athletic accomplishments.

Integrity and Petrino are not words that often go together. Throughout his successful football career, Petrino has burnt bridges and acted as though he believed he was above reproach. This could be seen during his time in Louisville where Petrino was always looking for a better job. It was on display when Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons midway through a disastrous 2007 in order to take the Arkansas job.

It was certainly on display when Petrino entered into a relationship with a 25-year-old, paid her $20,000, and then, essentially, helped her to get an administrative job with the football team. This is manipulative behavior. It also behavior that will have an impact on his relationship with his wife, his children, and others in his life. It also will likely impact his future employment possibilities. By focusing only on himself and his own desires, Petrino caused a pathway of damage that will take months and years to repair.

Petrino is a broken man. He is someone who needs help and, if he would seek it, counseling.

We should applaud Long for his decision to fire Petrino. Many would suspect, and rightfully so, that Long would protect his successful coach. Petrino had built a program that was to be ranked in the top 10 and a contender for BCS births. Some would suspect that an athletics director would separate on-field performance from personal indiscretions.

However, Long chose the more difficult path. In making his decisions, Long said that leaders should be held to a higher standard. Whether Petrino recognizes it or not, but as a coach of college athletes his actions off the field are as important as his guidance on the field. Leadership is more often about our actions than our words and, it appears, Petrino lost sight of that as a college coach.

Long is not the first to fire a coach for personal indiscretions. Pittsburgh fired Michael Haywood, before ever coaching a game, in December 2010 after his was arrested in a domestic violence incident. But, Long’s decision is the first in recent memory of a coach of a top 25 team being fired for a moral failing and not as a result of a NCAA investigation. What Long and Arkansas showed is that integrity is an important aspect of leadership. No amount of sports victories can replace the lack of integrity in a leadership position.

In a generation of athletics where scandals seem to happen more than an athletic contest, let us hope that this is a decision that will inspire others. For coaches, let it be a moment to reflect on their personal lives and a reminder that they are called to be leaders by both their words and actions. As well, may it be a moment of strength for athletics directors to maintain a level of integrity in the world of professional college athletics.

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