Sep 222019 5 Responses

When Arkansas Football Sold Its Soul

They call it the Curse of Bobby Petrino.

Having returned Arkansas football to national prominence in a short period of time, everything came crumbling down one April day when Petrino “crashed” his motorcycle. Within days it was discovered it wasn’t just a normal accident. A girl was involved. So was her boyfriend. Seven years later we still don’t know for sure what happened but it seems more likely that Petrino suffered injuries from his girlfriend’s fiancee than a single motorcycle wreck.

Ever since that day, Arkansas football hasn’t been the same. From 21-5 in Petrino’s last two seasons to a two-win season in 2018 and a home loss to San Jose State at the beginning of 2019. They call it the Curse of Bobby Petrino, but it’s not Petrino’s fault.

Not the Crash

It’s easy to blame the crash. Things were going great, now they aren’t. Everything changed with the crash. Clearly decisions have been made since then which could have made things better, but the crash changed everything.

Yet before the crash, there were questions. When (now former) Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long hired Petrino, there were tremendous questions. Petrino had a sketchy past. He was hot-tempered (even for a football coach). There was a history of morally questionable decisions.

Even Arkansas fans didn’t like Petrino because he was seen as a jerk. They disliked him until he became our jerk. Then the hope and ultimate fulfillment of winning covered everything–how he treated players, coaches, and the community. They say winning covers a multitude of sins and Petrino was proof.

But he’s proof of something else…character matters. (See: 4 Steps to Living with Integrity)

The Problem of Character

When Petrino was hired, everyone knew what was happening. Arkansas was overlooking proven character flaws in order to hire someone with a proven winning ability. One of my first statements was “this will go really good until it suddenly goes really bad.” I had no idea how quickly it would go bad, but we all knew something would happen. It was assumed a recruiting violation or an explosive interaction with the wrong person would end the Petrino era. Instead, it was some combination of an affair and a motorcycle.

The aftermath has been nearly unbearable. An interim coach with no authority, another coach with inappropriate coping mechanisms for stress, and now a new regime that is struggling to change a culture of losing has taken a once-influential program to the bottom. Many people likely share some responsibility for the outcomes, but one desire should be recognized.

What Arkansas football is currently experiencing is a common outcome when the importance of character is diminished and the desire to win takes over. (See: Character Trumps Party)

Character is easy to overlook. At any given moment a lie can be more productive than the truth. In a season, an affair might be more fun than marriage. Stretching the ethical boundaries might produce a winner in the moment. Ignoring character at the moment does not guarantee immediately negative consequences. It can even ensure immediate positive results. This is why we all struggle to prioritize character in our own lives and the lives of others. If it came with an immediate price, we would learn to value character. Yet because it doesn’t and since bad moral choices can lead to the immediate outcome we desire, we are tempted to cheat, lie, and downplay the role character plays in leadership and life.

However, an absence of character does come with a price. It rarely happens immediately, but there is a corrosive effect of poor character and when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong. It’s difficult to clean up the failures of a good man; it’s nearly impossible to clean up the failures of a bad one.

The Temptation

As a leader, I have often been tempted to cut ethical lines in order to gain a staff member who was especially gifted. When needs are present and a person promises to fill the gap, it’s difficult to turn down the opportunity. It’s easy to justify someone’s poor decisions, past mistakes, or present struggles. Many leaders are quick to overestimate their own ability to help their potential employee through their problems. It’s easy to blame past circumstances on the climate in which the person was in rather than the individual who actually made the choices.

And there is no doubt everyone deserves grace. Yet selecting someone to lead when they lack the character necessary to properly use that leadership is not a gift of grace. It is a failure of leadership.

That’s what happened to Arkansas football and that is what can happen to any of us.

The Warning

What we see going on at the University of Arkansas should be a warning to all leaders and all people. Downplay the role of character at your own risk. When you ignore its importance, you will eventually pay a price far greater than you can imagine. (See: What Should a Leader CARE About?)

I know some will laugh at this notion. Some will claim I’m downplaying the role others have had in the football program–current coaches, players, etc. Others will call me the Moral Police and roll their eyes as I write another article about character.

Yet as someone who daily interacts with people on their worst day, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen the generational influence of poor decisions. I’ve watched as people’s choices have created far more havoc than they ever dreamed. Businesses have been brought down, families destroyed, communities put into chaos all because character has been ignored.

There might be many causes for the Arkansas football team’s failures, but ignoring character a decade ago is still negatively impacting the program today. The fans, boosters, and administration were willing to sell their souls for a chance to win. Like always, the price was far higher than we expected.

Valuing character might make today more difficult. It will limit who you can hire, restrict what you can do, and require effort in order to morally mature. Yet strong character will make tomorrow better. Live and lead with tomorrow in mind.


Cover photo Creative Commons: Brandonrush

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