Auburn football is at a fork in the road after firing Gene Chizik.
One path involves hiring the most talented head coach possible regardless of risk. The other is to search for a hidden gem who possesses the character to earn long-term success. If the Tigers don’t want to end up at the same fork in a few years, they should travel the latter route.
Travis Haney of ESPN described the school’s search as a battle of morals vs. the mindset that winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing. He wrote:
There's a faction of folks (with power) at Auburn who want former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino … There's likewise a faction of folks (with power) at Auburn who want anyone other than Petrino. Those are the more moralistic supporters, those who—perhaps naively—think there has to be a prevalent moral compass for the head coach and whoever does the hiring of said coach.
Petrino ditched Louisville about six months into a 10-year contract. He then spurned the Atlanta Falcons mid-season less than a year later. Yes, Petrino is a phenomenal football coach and would provide the Tigers with their best chance to win in 2013.
But looking at what he did to the Cardinals and Falcons, who’s to say he won't do the same thing to Auburn if he turns the ship around? Combine that doubt with the scandal that got him fired from Arkansas, and the reward isn’t worth the risk attached to Petrino.
Now, the Tigers must be patient. Besides Petrino, they don’t have many—if any—options who are household names.
Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated tweeted about the lack of attraction the job has.
Auburn job description: We only fired our last 3 undefeated coaches. Come recruit against Nick Saban, deal with looming NCAA investigation.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) November 25, 2012
And by the way, that “looming NCAA investigation” is another reason Auburn should hire a high-character head coach. Ask USC how its attempt to extinguish the fire that was its recruiting scandal with Lane Kiffin is going.
Sure, passing on Petrino will require more effort on Auburn’s part. It must dig deep to find a diamond in the rough who not only has a moral compass, but is also capable of winning football games. That also comes with risks (that he won’t be able to win football games).
Another reason the Tigers may be tempted to say, “Screw the narrow road,” is the fact that they just won a national championship by allegedly using questionable methods to recruit Cam Newton. Cheaters (allegedly!) sometimes do win.
But when it’s all said and done, whether or not Auburn values the reputation of a respectable university over that of a football juggernaut is what will ultimately determine which path it decides to travel. One would hope that the former is the more appealing option.
David Daniels is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report and a syndicated writer.
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