Petrino, Louisville, And The Loss Of Decency

Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 8, 2014

Forget the word "jurisprudence." The operative phrase to use if indeed Bobby Petrino becomes the next head coach at the University of Louisville is "no Jurich prudence." Tom Jurich will send a horrible, even chilling, message to the rest of the college sports community if Petrino is hired at a school that will join the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014.

By Matt Zemek
E-mail Matt Zemek

Follow the Weekly Affirmation ... @MattZemek_CFN



Plenty of people on this green earth will say that Louisville's second marriage with Bobby Petrino should not be surprising. After all, the arena of big-ticket college sports is an arena in which a central figure at a state university freely – even joyfully – says that the hiring of a football coach (Nick Saban at Alabama) was the best decision he ever made. Big-ticket college sports provides a theater of activity in which morality and ethics pretty consistently take a back seat to winning and the pursuit of both profits and prestige. Fair enough.

Yet, isn't there always a point at which human beings possess at least SOME degree of decency? Isn't there a time and place at which SOME grown-ups say, "Hey, we want to win and sell our souls and all, but not that badly!"

Should Aaron Hernandez be let out of prison in five years and be given another chance to play football?

Should Ron Meyer of SMU have been given another chance to coach college football after everything that happened with the Mustangs in the very early 1980s?

Should Joe Paterno have been given a second chance at Penn State after all the revelations about the Jerry Sandusky case and how it was handled?

The answer to those three questions is certainly "no," or at least, I'd like to think so.

The key question then becomes, "What makes Bobby Petrino different from those examples, different enough to give him a job at a high-profile AQ program that will be moving into the Atlantic Coast Conference next season?"

Let's be very, very clear about the real issue with Louisville's second embrace of Petrino: It's not about the messy way Petrino left the school after leveraging his contract and breaking promises to be loyal to the Cardinals. It's not about Petrino's penchant for sticking at jobs for very brief periods of time as he restlessly searches for The Next Big Thing. It's not even about Petrino's affair with Jessica Dorrell at Arkansas, or about anything pertaining to Petrino's sex life.

It's not even about the fact that Petrino had an affair which harmed a relationship between two fellow employees in the athletic department at the University of Arkansas, though that should definitely be the kind of thing to give pause to other athletic directors in these United States.

No, the key point to make with respect to Bobby Petrino is that he misused state resources (a phone, yes, but also the apparatuses available to him in the athletic department) and interfered with a hiring process, thereby destroying a workplace at a major department within a large state institution. Fundamental ethics and employment violations defined Petrino's tenure at Arkansas. He was the stock trader who engaged in insider trading. He was the governor who violated ethics laws.

You can't be in public life as a public figure and get second chances for every job out there. Congressmen who break the law; bankers who defraud the public; people who commit violent crimes – these and other figures DO deserve second chances at making a life for themselves, assuming they are helped by various processes of rehabilitation and healing that are particular to their life situations and the poisonous inclinations that need to be rooted out of their mindsets. However, they don't deserve the jobs they once had.

You can't break the law and expect a second chance at serving in Congress. You can perhaps teach the FBI how to fight crime. THAT can be your second chance.

You can't defraud the public and expect a second chance as a banker. You can perhaps remake yourself as a writer who can offer analysis on how the system can be reformed, providing consultation to industry regulators on closing various loopholes while monitoring unsound practices that persist in the industry.

You can't commit a violent crime and expect a second chance as, say, a private security guard or as someone who carries a weapon on the job. You could perhaps find a second chance in due time as a developer of security systems, being an "idea man" in the process. Getting a second chance as an actual (weapon-carrying) guard, though? No way.

Remember Joseph Welch's words to Joe McCarthy in 1954: "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" Tom Jurich, viewed by many (yours truly included) as the best athletic director in the country, must face that question. How can he explain this hire to Louisville's swimming coaches… or to the internal employees in the football program… or to the compliance department… or to the human resources department? How can he lead an athletic department and claim to uphold basic values that are ostensibly supposed to not only accompany college sports, but filter down to the athletes Bobby Petrino will be in charge of molding?

The message Jurich is sending with this move – whether he agrees or not; whether he likes it or not – is that if you're an excellent craftsman in any given trade (which Petrino is as a developer of offenses and as a creator of well-designed football plays), no amount or degree of transgressions matters.

Be the worst jerk, the most unethical Wolf of Wall Street in the room, the most uncaring person in a larger community of employees and prospective job applicants.

Create a cozy job for your mistress in your place of employment, wrongfully depriving other people of the chance to earn a job on their merits. Use a phone – ostensibly provided for work use by a state institution – to carry on your affair. Have an affair within your larger work environment, one of the classic no-nos of workplace ethics. Go ahead and do something that gets plenty of people booted out of a given line of work, and rightly so, in light of the conflict of interest it creates.

All these things apply to Bobby Petrino. Tom Jurich, the new Honey Badger of college athletic directors, doesn't care. He doesn't care AT ALL.

Surely, there's a line that has to be drawn somewhere. Surely, there's a point at which some kinds of offenses don't give human beings second chances at certain kinds of jobs.

Second chances in life? That's something we should all support, especially in cases such as marijuana use. Human beings should not be rotting in jail cells for nonviolent, unharmful actions that didn't negatively affect any other person's financial or physical well-being. We should be a second-chance society, and more specifically, we should aim to be a society in which we reach out to all sorts of people when they fail and make mistakes. This is true and good and right.


… being a second-chance society doesn't mean you allow a person to drive a car after three DUI offenses. Being a second-chance society doesn't mean you allow a scientist at a national laboratory to continue to practice his craft when he sends a letter filled with poison to a public official. Being a second-chance society doesn't mean that you allow a mailman to remain at work for the United States Postal Service after he steals money from an envelope twice in one week.

This is not about Bobby Petrino's first departure from Louisville. This is not about his sex life. This is not about his affair. This is about major ethical violations in terms of the use of state resources and the interference with a hiring process. Maybe Petrino gets to drive the equivalent of a golf cart (a non-AQ program such as Western Kentucky), but this football coaching version of a DUI offender doesn't deserve to drive a car, otherwise known as an AQ program that will join the ACC next season.

Can this hire ever become a good and redeemed one? Yes or no, the only way it's even possible for the hire to become a redeemed one is if Petrino becomes a choirboy and doesn't make one misstep for the next 10 years or so. Ultimately, though, the verdict here is that NO, this can never be a redeemed hire, because there are certain kinds of offenses that should rightly prohibit certain people from doing certain things in a world of adults. The message Tom Jurich is sending with this move, assuming it goes through, is that if you win enough and are talented enough, no set of misdeeds or spectacular ethical violations will prevent you from getting a lucrative job with all the power and prestige said job entails.

That's a terrible message to send in any industry or workplace context; it's a particularly disturbing message to send in the realm of college athletics, where athletes are ostensibly on campus to receive wisdom, nourishment, and profound teaching about life… and yet aren't given a paycheck for the work they do, work – one should note – that hasn't been done unethically or immorally.