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Jeff Long’s finest hour

There seemed to be something fitting about the fact that I was high atop Petit Jean Mountain at Winthrop Rockefeller’s old ranch when the news leaked out late Tuesday afternoon that Bobby Petrino had been fired as the head football coach at the University of Arkansas.

Rockefeller came to Arkansas in 1953 to escape a failed marriage and the tabloid journalists in New York. During the next two decades he would do as much as any person in Arkansas history to build this state, especially when it came to restoring integrity and fairness to a political system that was in many instances corrupt.

Rockefeller was not a native Arkansan, but he made us proud to be Arkansans as we finally began to escape the long shadow cast by the Little Rock Central High School crisis of 1957.

I thought about Rockefeller as I sat at his ranch Tuesday night watching television coverage of Jeff Long’s news conference in Fayetteville.

Like Rockefeller, Jeff Long isn’t a native Arkansan. He’s an Ohio native who came here with no previous connection to the state or its flagship university. He took on the task of replacing the legendary Frank Broyles as athletic director.

Like Rockefeller, he has made us proud to be Arkansans.

That’s not to say that an athletic director firing a head football coach at the University of Arkansas is on the same level as reforming the state’s political culture. Yet it would be naive not to acknowledge that Razorback football has become a part of who we are as a people.

It can be debated whether that obsession is healthy. What’s not open to debate is that for thousands of Arkansans, their very identity is tied up to some extent in the exploits of teenagers playing football at the University of Arkansas.

Jeff Long realized that the Razorback brand is bigger than any one man.

Once the truth came out, he made the only call he could have made.

In the end, it probably wasn’t even a close call.

I wrote a blog post Monday that said I would fire Petrino if I were Long, but I had a gut sense the university would find a way to keep the egomaniacal control freak who had run the Razorback football program the previous four seasons.

I feared Petrino would be kept because we’re talking about football in the Southeastern Conference, where too often winning is the only thing that matters.

I never dreamed my Southern Fried blog post would be linked to as many message boards and national sports websites as it was. As you might guess, some of those sad souls who spend their days trolling the message boards (let it be noted that many of the people on these boards are good folks, though the percentage of misguided trolls seems high) spewed their vitriol.

For these people, the percentage of victories on the field is all that counts.

There are, of course, downsides to growing older, but I’m glad I’ve reached the age where things like honor, integrity and honesty are far more important to me than the group of teenagers that wins the football game. Thirty years ago, I might have been among the group wanting to keep Petrino.

Long had to consider the reputation of an entire university and, in a sense, a whole state.

The fact he’s being praised nationwide today — the fact that his decision came as a surprise to most observers — is a commentary on the sorry state of college athletics.

In almost any part of the private sector, an employee who consistently lied to supervisors and made a mockery of the hiring process would have been fired without a second thought.

In American sports, though, we’ve become far too accustomed to people refusing to follow what Lou Holtz called the do-right rule.

So let’s accept the praise that’s pouring in from across the country on this Wednesday.

Let’s be proud that people like Jeff Long and David Gearhart work at the University of Arkansas.

Let’s be thankful that members of the UA board backed those men in their decision.

In the midst of a dark scandal, let’s realize that Long’s news conference on Tuesday night was among the high points in the history of Arkansas athletics, right up there in my mind with the Jan. 1, 1965, victory over Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl and the 1994 national championship in men’s basketball.

“Anyone got a hog hat?” Geoff Calkins wrote in the Commercial Appeal at Memphis. “Today, I’d proudly put one on. I’d wear it in support of decency, and of a university that acted like one. I’d wear it in tribute to athletic director Jeff Long, who rose to the moment like few dared to believe he would.

“Long fired football coach Bobby Petrino on the cusp of an important season. And then he walked to the lectern at Bud Walton Arena and explained why he had no choice. He eviscerated Petrino. He laid him out in a way that would have made Steve Atwater proud. He said that Petrino had lied to him and others about his motorcycle accident.”

Calkins, one of the nation’s better sports columnists, ended his column this way: “Long understood his duty wasn’t to the most maniacal fans. It was to the players, and the university, and to the tens of thousands of Arkansas graduates who believe in the place.

“Yes, Saturdays in the fall are wonderful. There’s nothing like cheering for your team. But what’s the point if your team has publicly forfeited its last shred of dignity? What kind of victory is that?

“This is not going to be an easy process for Long or the Razorbacks going forward. It’s a lousy time to find a new head coach. The season Petrino would have presided over this year will become ever more glorious now that it will never happen. Whenever Arkansas loses a game, it will inevitably be Long’s fault.

“So here’s hoping Arkansas somehow wins them all this season. Here’s hoping honor has its just reward. Either way, I’d wear a hog hat proudly. Nothing that happens on a football field can top what happened Tuesday night.”

I could not agree more with Geoff Calkins.

This native Arkansan thus sends this simple message to the Ohio native who chose to move here: “Thank you, Jeff Long. Thank you for renewing my faith in the University of Arkansas. Thank you for making me feel better about college football, a sport I love. Thank you for making me proud to be an Arkansan.”

Back in September, I wrote a post on the Southern Fried blog with this headline: “Jeff Long: Right man at the right time.”

It’s nice, I guess, to get on the bandwagon early.

In a feature on Long for the October issue of Arkansas Life magazine, I wrote: “Long’s office is in the Broyles Athletic Center. He looks out his window and sees Frank Broyles Field at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. There’s simply no getting away from the Broyles name. It’s said that you never want to be the person who replaces the legend. Instead, you want to be the person who replaced the person who replaced the legend. Long ignored that axiom.”

We’re fortunate he didn’t mind stepping into those big shoes when he came here in late 2007.

There are those who said, “Petrino deserved a second chance.”

My answer to that is that a man with a long history of being less than honest with his employers got his second chance when Long hired him at Arkansas in December 2007.

As it turned out, Long hired a snake.

On Tuesday, Long cut off the head before the snake could bite him again.

Despite all the damage Petrino has left in his wake, we should wish the man no ill will. I hope he can reflect on his mistakes and heal — physically, emotionally and spiritually. He’s still a relatively young man at age 51.

I dream of the day when he can come back to speak to the Little Rock Touchdown Club and say: “I did you people in Arkansas wrong. I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m a better man now than I was then.”

As for 2012, I would like to see the first speaker of the fall at the Little Rock Touchdown Club be Jeff Long.

I’ll start the standing ovation. I know everybody will join in. And I know it will go on for a long time.

Even in the crazy world of SEC football, integrity still matters on at least one campus.

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