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Schools Losing Patience With Reputation-Damaging Athletic Programs

This has been a tough two weeks for college football coaches. Not coaches of losing programs, but coaches of winning programs. Normally, when coaches are fired, it’s because wins don’t outnumber losses on the field or court. But recently, we’ve seen two successful college football coaches in high profile programs lose their jobs due to alleged moral negligence.

In the last week of March, the University of Montana fired highly successful head football coach Robin Pflugard and Director of Athletics Jim O’Day after a series of sexual assaults on campus, some of which implicated football players. Pflugard came under fire when he welcomed back suspended quarterback Jordan Johnson, who was allowed to return to the program after assault charges were replaced with a restraining order, a legal move that allowed the QB to return to practice.

Pflugard had told the media, “I think any time you have a person of Jordy’s character and tremendous moral fiber, and he’s your team captain and part of the leadership council, your players are going to be fired up. And on top of that he’s a tremendous football player. When you get I would say your No. 1 guy back in all categories, on and off the football field, guys are excited.”

The UM president opted not to renew the contracts of either man, and gave no reason for the dismissal, calling it a personnel matter. Pflugard had an 18-7 record at Montana over the last two years, including an appearance in the semi-finals of the FCS championship in 2011.

On Tuesday, University of Arkansas Director of Athletics Jeff Long fired popular head football coach Bobby Petrino after it was revealed the head coach had lied to Long and the media about his relationship with a female staffer and the role she played in his recent motorcycle accident. Long, visibly shaken at the press conference announcing the decision, said that Petrino engaged in “deceiving and manipulative behavior” against the school that included a $20,000 payment for undisclosed purposes to the staffer, and lying about the circumstances of his accident. Petrino led the Razorbacks to a school record number of wins  in 2011 and the team was projected to begin the coming season in the national top ten.

ESPN Arkansas local radio host Bo Mattingly was asked about the impact on the fan base on an ESPN news report Tuesday night. He said, “There’s been more support for Jeff Long in making this decision than I thought we would see. It has been impactful, the number of people who stood behind Jeff Long in this decision today. I’m getting a lot of reaction from people who say they are proud of Jeff Long as an athletic director, and they think if there were any winners in this case, it’s the Arkansas AD.”

 ESPN The Magazine’s cover story on corruption in college athletics last summer showcased the fractured reputations of some of the nation’s most elite programs. University presidents and college athletic directors seem to be leaning more towards the greater university reputation than in the recent past when athletic departments stood apart from the rest of the institution. With all the data we have today on how bad reputation impacts an organization’s ability to raise money, schools are having less patience with wayward athletic programs. More and more, schools are realizing the tangible value of a good reputation to help weather a crisis storm, and are willing to incur the temporary wrath of boosters and fans for long range prosperity.

Is the public’s patience with cheating and moral lapses in collegiate athletics waning? Does the public’s access to social media and 24-7 news give them a bigger voice to keep athletic departments accountable? What’s your take?

images courtesy of Doug Benc, Getty Images and Fox Sports

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