Opinion: Bielema's Firing Shows Cutthroat Side of Athletics

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Charleston Gazette-Mail


Big-time athletics, be it in college or the pros, is a hard business. The millions upon millions of dollars involved in each team make those sports results-driven endeavors. A coach can't win? He might think about renting rather than buying.

And when the day comes that a coach loses that one game too many, or that day when a prized player announces a transfer, he'll get that visit or phone call from a team executive, wishing him well in his future endeavors. The scenes of those dismissals can be cold ones.

Who can forget the story of current Florida Atlantic football coach Lane Kiffin being relieved of his duties as Southern Cal's head coach at 3:14 a.m. on the Los Angeles International Airport tarmac?

But on the field at Razorback Stadium - literally, on the field at Razorback Stadium - in Fayetteville, Arkansas, we may have witnessed the scene that tops all of them.

Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema was fired Friday after the Razorbacks' loss to Missouri. How long did Arkansas officials wait after the game to inform him of that decision?

"I was informed coming off the field that I would no longer be the coach at Arkansas, Bielema told reporters at his postgame press conference.

And there's your winner.

Arkansas had just lost a close game to close a 4-8 season, Bielema probably wanted to walk back to the locker room and thank his players for their contributions this year, and then he had to do it right after school officials sidled up to him and handed him a pink slip.

Not only that, but as media members were waiting for Bielema's postgame press conference, they were handed press releases, complete with two paragraphs of quotes from interim athletic director Julie Cromer Peoples, announcing his termination.

Did Bielema need to be fired? He went 29-34 overall and 11-29 in the SEC during his five seasons in Fayetteville. A change needed to be made.

But he also gave Arkansas three bowl appearances and two bowl wins in those five years. He also didn't give your athletic program any black marks on its reputation (need Arkansas be reminded of the Bobby Petrino Affair?) Even if you have to let him go, you don't let him go like that.

Arkansas officials tried to justify the move in a note to website Football Scoop, saying they wanted to make the change as quickly as possible so he could meet with his entire team, many of them heading home for the holiday weekend. They didn't want the players to find out about the change on social media.

Fine. At least let Bielema get to the locker room before you give him the news. The players won't have showered, dressed, packed up and left in the couple of minutes it would have taken to afford Bielema a modicum of dignity.

Major sports are cutthroat. I get it. Coaches and players need a thick skin to survive them. But there must be limits. Firing a coach as he's walking off the field doesn't just cross the line, it does a triple backflip over it. And it's a move that could come back to bite Arkansas in the future.

Chances are very, very good that there will be a slew of premier head coach openings this offseason. Three major programs - Florida, Nebraska and Tennessee - are searching for new coaches. For a program to stand out among the rest, it must offer something special.

Right now, the message at Arkansas is, "If you don't win enough, we'll have the press release of your firing ready to print before you even cross the threshold of your locker room. If that university wants a top-level replacement for Bielema, why on earth would a top-level candidate risk that type of treatment if there are other great jobs available? Image is everything, and this isn't a good one.

Let this be a lesson to athletic programs great and small: As much as you preach to your student-athletes that there's a right and wrong way to do everything in life, and to always travel the right path, make sure to follow your own advice.

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November 27, 2017


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