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Bobby Petrino And The Last “Greater Fool”

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On Tuesday, Bobby Petrino left his head coaching position with the Atlanta Falcons to fill the head coaching vacancy at the University of Arkansas. Petrino and his roving eye for the next best coaching opportunity has been benefiting for years from a version of the “greater fool theory.” In investing circles, many ascribe to the “greater fool theory,” the theory that money can be made even on questionable investments because there will always be “greater fool” willing to buy that investor’s mistake. Similarly, Petrino has always been able to find a greater fool to buy his coaching services despite the promises or, in the case of the Falcons, the ruin he leaves behind. All prospective future employers of Bobby Petrino would be wise to make sure that the University of Arkansas is the last greater fool.

When Bobby Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons only 13 games into a five year contract signed in January, there was anger among all members of the Falcons family (players, front office, and fans) as well as in the general football community, but there was certainly no surprise. Petrino has built a track record of saying whatever necessary to keep his current employer at bay while brazenly seeking “better” employment. While at University of Louisville, Petrino made an infamous stealth visit to Auburn to meet with school officials to discuss a job that was still occupied by current coach Tommy Tuberville. Petrino not so secretly coveted so many open college coaching positions afterward that Louisville asked him to reaffirm his commitment to the school by signing a 10-year, $25 million contract in July 2006. Petrino stayed committed for all of six months until the Falcons offered him a 5-year, $24 million contract.

It is easy to argue that the Falcons should have known better than to hitch its horses to such a flaky wagon. However, among the local Atlanta fans, most of the blame for the situation that has the Falcons looking for its fourth head coach in six seasons is resting with Petrino.

However, there are many sports fans not outraged by Petrino’s behavior. They understand Petrino’s behavior or even condone it. Many fans believe that, at the very least, we should expect such behavior in this day in age. Loyalty is simply a casualty of the times, no different than cassette tapes or Betamax VCRs. These apologists dream of being in Petrino’s position, having the leverage to “get” the employer before they “get got” themselves. In this era of regularly scheduled layoffs in corporate America, most of us will never have the “hammer” that Petrino has wielded over the last several years. He provides a vicarious thrill. Good for him!

Maybe, but this is very bad for us sports fans and perhaps even us citizens. Why are we so willing to cynically accept that not even a modicum of loyalty should be part of the coach’s job description? The young men of the University of Arkansas will be taught leadership by someone who through his actions makes no apology for putting himself above his followers even to their detriment. They will be “led” by someone for whom his football teams are simply a means to his ends (greater money, power and position). Yet, if Tuesday night’s press conference announcing Petrino’s hiring is any indication, there is nothing but glee in the Razorback Nation at the prospect of the Petrino era. And therein lies the problem.

We the fans are too willing to be the greater fool. Arkansas ignores the manner in which Petrino left Atlanta and simply celebrates his arrival in Fayetteville. The Falcons ignore the so-called commitment that Petrino made to Louisville and lures him to Atlanta. We the fans refuse to hold the decision makers who run our teams accountable for the character of the people hired to coach. We the fan base give these decision makers no incentive to do the right thing. In the process, we also leave ourselves no right to complain. We have enabled the bad behavior that we wish to condemn when “status climbing” coaches jilt one employer and one fan base for the next. Ultimately, much of this is our fault, but we can fix it. Empty seats and unspent dollars can solve a lot of problems.

Let’s make sure that today’s outrage becomes tomorrow’s action. Let’s make sure that there will not be another Arkansas, another Atlanta Falcons. Let’s make sure that we have seen the last greater fool.

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