The world of sport can be a tremendous teacher. The games we love, watch, and cover can educate and index our own thoughts, emotions, and beliefs into a clearer reality. We all can remember those moments when sport meant something more than the play on the field or the final score. Whether it's President Bush throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium shortly after the 9/11 attacks or the Penn State/Nebraska football squads coming together for a moment of prayer for the victims of a horrific abuse scandal, sports can and do deliver discourses to be remembered.
Last December in College Station, Mike Sherman provided one of those experiences at a most unlikely moment. Sherman, who had just been relieved of his head coaching duties at Texas A&M, held a press conference, where he described his time on campus, the joys of mentoring young men, and the pain of falling short of his own expectations. What would cause a man to face a press conference just hours after being informed of his dismissal? Sherman said he needed closure. What he supplied was a dialogue that belongs in the etched memory of sports lore.
Class is creation of the soul and it cannot be faked. Class is an outgrowth of humility. It is the ability to see beyond our own supremacy and turn the other cheek when we are offended, hurt, or betrayed. Betrayal may be the bitterest of feelings. While listening to Sherman, you could see the sting of disloyalty fresh upon his countenance. But that's what made his recital so breathtaking. He refused to let his disappointment cloud his true character.
This becomes more apparent when you compare his kind words of thanksgiving on that afternoon with the treatment he received from the A&M brass. Decency. Graciousness. Respectability. Nobility. Sometimes those nouns are not reciprocated. They certainly weren't for Mike Sherman. It is hard to describe how things in college athletics, let alone life should be. Words, while strong, sometimes do not do experience justice. Words, however, when delivered with emotion can enlighten us to our very core. Sherman's meek walk into the sunset was no't a fit of weakness. Far from it. It was an answer, in its own way, to how things should be.
Maybe that is why it affected me so much. If faced with similar circumstances, would I have be able to demonstrate that amount of personal courage and vigor? Perhaps its impact stems from a guilty conscience on my part. As a pundit of the game of college football I sit in the friendly and comfortable confines of my living room and tweet to my sarcastic heart's content. Too often I forget that there are good men in difficult situations doing the best they can under the brightest of lights. A fresh breath of humanity is a good remedy for becoming too fixated on the things that do not really matter.
"If you're only a football player and I am only a football coach, that's a sad testimony," Sherman recounted in the middle of his presser. A press conference where he would describe in detail the benefits of the A&M code of conduct, his love for the University and those who aided him. This despite the glaring reality that maybe all that he had believed in was merely a show. His treatment by those who carried the banner of the University would certainly cast a shadow on the truth of those principles.
Leon Trotsky once said that you cannot live through life "without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery." Mike Sherman's 41 minute press conference was the embodiment of what Trotsky was trying to get at, at least in the football sense. As he closed, Sherman said the following: "I love coaching and I love football and think it brings out the best in people." It surely brought the best out of you, sir.
Fast forward to April of 2012. Much-maligned Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino was fired by University Athletic Director Jeff Long after four successful seasons in Fayetteville. 2012 looked to be the year that the Hogs could compete for SEC West crown and possible shot at a national title. That train was derailed, at least for the moment, by the selfish and unnerving actions of a head coach who felt he was bigger than the program. Petrino was fired for cause after engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a 25-year-old subordinate, lying to his superiors on numerous occasions, and breaking the school's code of ethics. In short, it was an easy decision for Mr. Long.
Or was it?
This is the Southeastern Conference, a collection of programs hell bent on football domination. Stories fly and rumors linger, some of which are true, that football is preeminent, and nothing, not even morality, sportsmanship, or law can interfere. This is Big Boy College Athletics: Alabama and Louisiana State on one side of the coin; Florida and Georgia on the other. The Hogs, longed deprived of a national title contending squad, were about to break through that ceiling in a big way. No one questioned the talent in northwest Arkansas. And Petrino had the coaching chops to fix the national spotlight on the University of Arkansas for years to come. As College Football News' Matt Zemek opined, it seemed Bobby Petrino was "too big to fail."
Enter Jeff Long.
In a calm, direct, and emotional press conference, Long delivered the news of Petrino's firing. The details are not really of importance. It was the way in which the message was delivered. It had a similar feel as the Sherman press conference; the roles were just reversed. Here was a Director of Athletics showing that integrity still has a place in college athletics. That conducting business the right way is still a possibility, the madness of modern day athletics notwithstanding. Here was a man, in victory (and having the gumption to fire Bobby Petrino is a victory of victories), leading a group of young men in principle, just as Mike Sherman, in defeat, had done four months ago.
When asked why he was so emotional, Long remarked: "Peoples lives are affected. These are things sometimes we miss." In the busybody, business-like mentality of major college athletics, where wins-and-losses are trumpeted as the end-all-be-all of existence, boy is Mr. Long correct. Principles, if correctly taught and adequately executed can lead those affected to benefit therein. This is what Jeff Long did on Tuesday evening. He took control of his athletic department and instilled a sense of hope to those who took in the festivities from the outside. Perhaps even here in the EssEeeSee, where cynicism finds fertile soil, principles, people, and the student-athlete can win the day. With the all-seeing-eye of the sporting world upon the University of Arkansas, we learned that there may just be hope after all.
Tellingly, both Long and Sherman, in the midst of their respective press conferences, were hailed by an a single alumnus, both of whom were now employed as a journalist, who then thanked them for respecting the institution and being a great ambassador. No question asked. Just a statement of thanksgiving. These press conferences were different.
Jeff Long seconded Mike Sherman's powerful answer and provided us with a glimpse into how things should be. Here's to hoping that this will not be the end. College athletics needs some good stories now more than ever.