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Petrino Agonistes


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Bobby Petrino
  • Richey Miller/Cal Sport Media/Newscom

Let me recreate a scene for you. Fayetteville. An August scrimmage. Your team was ranked 12th in the final AP Poll of 2010 and is returning 15 starters from a 10-3 record that resulted in the first BCS Bowl appearance in school history. You have 14 pre-season All-Southeastern Conference Team selections, the second most of any conference school.

A play develops. A scream is heard. Bodies clear and your team captain and All-SEC running back is on the ground writhing in pain.

The running back who had 1,322 rushing yards last season, more than any other running back in the conference. The one who averaged 6.48 yards-per-carry, which led the nation among running backs with at least 200 carries. The one who was named to the Doak Walker, Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Players of the Year watch lists.

And then you get the news. Left ankle. Out for the year. Last season, he was responsible for 101.7 yards-per-game; this season, he's responsible for your new Paxil prescription.

I keep thinking that everyday in the life of Bobby Petrino must absolutely suck.

"The West Wing" taught me that I never want to be President. "The Sopranos" taught me that I never want to be a mob boss. And reading the sports page, sports websites and message boards everyday has taught me that I never want to be an SEC coach.

"But he's the most recognized and beloved public figure in the state," you say. Yes. And still I say, "Not worth it." "But he made $3.56 million plus perks last year," you say. And still I say, "He earned every penny and he deserves more."

Petrino can do everything right. He can work 20 years to become a head coach, sacrificing his family and friends. He can recruit well, hire the right staff, operate on four hours of sleep per night, live on the road, break head, back and knuckles to innovate his schemes, and then some July night at 4 a.m. his phone still rings and his projected starting offensive tackle — a young man who has as much God-given talent as anyone on your team but one he's practically had to wet-nurse for the last three years — has gotten arrested for his second DUI. Offensive tackle is his thinnest position. But he has to — has to — kick this kid off the team.

And this is really the problem. Imagine having an 18 year-old. All the anxiety of them being out every night and you not knowing who they're with or what they're doing. Now imagine you have 120 of them (85 on scholarship) and they weren't raised in your home and your livelihood depends on them. Think about that. Your job depends on the reliability of a group of 18-22 year-olds.

Petrino is part-time administrator and full-time P.R. agent. He's the face of the university and, to many people, the state. Everyday he manages an athletic director, a chancellor, boosters, professors, local and national media, wife and children, emotionally troubled players, egotistic recruits, overzealous fans, the NCAA, the SEC, and the Board of Trustees.

He's the CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation, but the CEO of Goldman Sachs doesn't have to deal personally with a trader getting a girl pregnant. He is parent, publicist, counselor, salesman and tutor. He has to relate to fans, but more than that, has to be what this fan base wants to be themselves. He is politician. Able-bodied commander-in-chief behind the big desk, and on the campaign trail with his sleeves rolled up in the barbecue restaurant.

He's a millionaire, but everyday he takes calls from billionaires who want to give him advice, while at the same time having to go into the living room of some 17-year-old who lives below poverty level and beg him to come play for him.

And he has to be all these things because college football means so much. It's an amateur sport and it's the second most popular sport in the country, more popular than Major League Baseball and the NBA. In 2010, for the first time, the 68 college teams that play in the 11 major conferences pocketed more than $1 billion. That's profit.

But more than fame or money, Petrino is the emblem of our state mythology. It's regional rivalries. It's the inseparability of state and team, Arkansas and Hog. It's player loyalty. It's seeing someone who will never play a down of pro football do something astonishing and become, briefly, a national hero and, forever, a local one.

And so the face of the modern SEC coach has had to change. From good ole' boy to CEO. From Nutt to Petrino. From flesh and blood to machine.

We want tacticians. We want control. And you're kidding yourselves if you think Charlie Weiss or Phillip Fulmer couldn't have gotten another year or two leeway from their fans had they adapted and better looked the part.

But Petrino's job is about more than college football. His job is to distill all the complications, veil all the controversies, and tell us that it's still the same pure, simple "for the love of the (amateur) game" it was 50 years ago. It's clear and has rules, and the coaches and players who are moral and fair and work hard are still the ones who gain the greatest rewards our country has to offer. He tells us that the America we know and love is alive and well. He gives us the country we want to be, rather than the country we are.


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