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Lieberman: Petrino’s ousting gives college football fans another peek behind the curtain



Arkansas fired head football coach Bobby Petrino on Tuesday afternoon, following a series of unethical miscues and sloppy attempts to cover his footprints.@@http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/bobby-petrino-fired-apologizes-for-inappropriate-relationship-with-jessica-dorrell/2012/04/11/[email protected]@

The details emerging from Fayetteville are juicy — a mistress, thousands of dollars passed under the table, a perilous motorcycle crash. But for devout college football fans, the story is all too familiar: a big-time program with a head honcho who thinks, for one reason or another, that on-field success permits him to dance around NCAA regulations and the law without facing the consequences.

Every few months, a head coach fumbles the ball on the biggest stage. Yet even after two of the sport’s most cherished names went down in infamy, Petrino has joined Joe Paterno and Jim Tressel in the doghouse.@@http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Paterno, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/[email protected]@

I love college football Saturdays. I spend a good portion of winter break with my eyes firmly fixated on bowl season. But as the campus-shattering scandals continue to rack up, I can’t help but feel like Dorothy. You know, from The Wizard of Oz. I think most of us remember one of the film’s most iconic scenes.

As the tale’s heroine and her friends triumphantly arrive to see the Wizard — hoping to finally find their desired pursuits — a surprise awaits. Dorothy’s faithful canine companion, Toto, pulls back a curtain to reveal that the Wizard is nothing more than a normal guy from Omaha, as lost and lonely as the rest of them.

Every time I read about another NCAA scandal, I might as well slip into a pair of ruby slippers. Head coaches across the nation, from Les Miles to Lane Kiffin, are continually built up to near-mythical proportions. They are lauded for their leadership, and for developing our youth. As life-long football loyalists are reputed as public servants, the multimillion-dollar paychecks and indiscretions are ignored.@@http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Miles, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/[email protected]@

And for some reason, the majority of college football fans — myself included — continue to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Accordingly, we act surprised when the facade crumbles. Maybe it’s the charismatic press conferences, or the air of superiority exuded by the athletic elite. Either way, both the media and diehard supporters continue to bow at the feet of college football royalty.

Here’s an idea: let’s try to flip the dynamic.

Of course, it’s not that easy. Part of the reason that local journalists are so deferential to college head coaches is that they are one scathing column away from a soured relationship. And in this industry, bitter interaction is as bad or worst than none at all.

Beat sportswriters are always looking over their shoulder for the next potential disaster: a quote taken out of context, an inappropriate (see: tough) question that throws a coach off balance. Any of these things can turn the Big Man against you. And when the coaching staff and its sports information directors have you blacklisted, it’s game over.

So how can the media and fans begin disintegrate a coach’s outer circle? Band together and demand more transparency.

After all, at public institutions, we’re talking about our tax dollars at work. If coaches and administrators are making seven-figure salaries, it seems fair that the public should be involved.

But right now, they’re not. College towns continue to skip down the Yellow Brick Road, blissfully ignorant of the truths that lie behind cherished idols. Eugene is just as guilty as Columbus, Fayetteville or Happy Valley.

How would transparency be achieved? I think that responsibility falls with policymakers and bureaucrats. But as it stands now, athletic departments undeniably operate in a shroud of mystery.

Recruit visits are hush-hush. Handshake deals, such as the infamous employment contract between Oregon and former athletic director Mike Bellotti, aren’t all that uncommon. Try to imagine any other part of the University department conducting business in the same manner. Even with a few zeros chopped off the end of the paycheck, it’s hard to draw a parallel.

The NCAA obviously isn’t up to the task of monitoring its member institutions effectively. They’re understaffed and have a clear conflict of interest when it comes to tarnishing the reputations of institutions that help the NCAA garner obscene amounts of money on an annual basis. Mark Emmert and the rest of the heads in Indianapolis are largely there to drop a bomb only when the media, informants or other member schools start to rake the muck.@@http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/[email protected]@

The press is purported as a fourth estate. And in many instances in society, including college sports, it serves this purpose. But in the case of Arkansas, it wasn’t until discrepancies arose between police reports and public statements that the veil was removed. Why should it take a gaffe of this magnitude to spark the flame?

I’m not exactly certain how the public can gain more insight into big-time athletic departments. However, I am sure that a lack of action in the future will only lead to more scandals and a more fractured and dysfunctional landscape in college sports.


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David Lieberman

David Lieberman