If Petrino Had Been Named Auburn Coach …



First published in The War Eagle Reader.  find it here.

This is not one of those wild parallel reality articles; I’m not that talented. It’s my take as a faculty member on the just-concluded search for a head coach.

For those nine days, I lived in fear that somehow, Auburn would name Bobby Petrino as head football coach.

Yes, I know that most Auburn fans are glad the process is over and want to move on. I’m glad too. And it might be that for us academics, the desire to beat a dead horse comes with the cap and gown. But I think some reflection is in order.

In my opinion, hiring Petrino would have sent the wrong message to our student-athletes and to all of our students.  The message would have been this: Doing the wrong thing is OK, as long as you win.  Consequences are for losers.

Had the hire been made, I was ready to resign my position on the University Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics,  and I had expressed that willingness to friends who would hold me to it. It might not seem like a big deal; I am finishing a three-year term.

But I could not have continued as a faculty member on the committee if that were the philosophy of the athletics department. Thank God it’s not.

For me, the issue was not so much Petrino’s oft-ridiculed affair with an Arkansas athletics staff member.  He must bear the weight of that privately, and it looks like he will, for a long time.

It was that he created an ethical nightmare for his school, and might have violated the law, by hiring that staff member to a better-paid position on the staff of a state university.  As I posted in an early tweet, any athletics director would be crazy to hire Petrino, knowing that he had done that.

And let’s not forget that within the Jetgate scandal, Petrino made his own missteps by not informing his athletics director that he was seeking the Auburn job.  Obviously, that would have threatened the process’s secrecy, but once again, Petrino subverted ethical principle to his own interest.

At the NFL level, that’s another debate. I won’t talk about what happened in Atlanta.  But on a college campus (and as I frequently state, this is college football) this is serious stuff.

Despite appearances, a college campus is not an FBS football factory.  It is a setting where thousands of mostly young men and women, some of them athletes, learn at a variety of levels — academic, social, and yes, ethical.

We enforce an academic honor code, and when a student crosses that line, he or she should be prosecuted.  And not just to be punished for trying to succeed by breaking the rules. The idea is for students to recognize that there are consequences for academic dishonesty. We don’t publicly announce individual student verdicts, but they know the process is there. If there were no consequences, cheating would be even more of a problem than it is now.

But it’s hard to expect students to accept that, when they know that a football coach catches a break because of his winning percentage.

In so many ways, critics complain that college football is out of control.  At Auburn, $11 million in buyouts to a fired coach and his staff supports the argument.  An eagerness to hire a disgraced coach because of his winning percentage would have added to that perception.

For all of the heat Jay Jacobs has been catching, his record in promoting the academic welfare of student-athletes has not been mentioned. Under his leadership, our students have shined. Football player Ashton Richardson was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship. Soccer player Katy Frierson and diver Dan Mazziaferro were finalists for the prestigious Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship.

But his search committee did not hire Bobby Petrino. And for that I am grateful.