Perhaps the best thing coming out of the scandal that brought down University of Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino is that it seems to show high-powered collegiate coaches can be held accountable for their actions.

Perhaps the best thing coming out of the scandal that brought down University of Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino is that it seems to show high-powered collegiate coaches can be held accountable for their actions.

If so, it runs counter to what we could expect, considering the circumstances.

Of course, many Razorback fans will always believe that UA Athletic Director Jeff Long was mistaken in his decision to fire Petrino for cause. After all, some reason, he did nothing worse than presidents have done.

However, we should hold football coaches to a higher standard, if only because we pay them a lot more.

In 2001, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics issued its second report, “A Call to Action: Reconnecting College Sports and Higher Education,” calling for colleges and universities to regain control of their athletic programs, which the commission said were skewing academic values and priorities.

Pointing out that the average profit for the top Division I-A institutions had more than doubled from 1997 to 1999, the report said: “Too much in major college sports is geared to accommodating excess. Too many athletic directors and conference commissioners serve principally as money managers, ever alert to maximizing revenues. And too many have looked to their stadiums and arenas to generate more money.”

While the commission’s reports have had some success in reforming collegiate athletics, it hasn’t done much to change the profit motive, and coaches’ salaries are a prime example.

Although Arkansas is considered a poor state, the UA has managed to get its football coach’s salary up to about $3.6 million annually — good enough for sixth place among all Division I-A schools. USA Today, which analyzes coaching salaries, reported in November that Texas’ Mack Brown leads the list with an annual salary of almost $5.2 million.

Between 2006 and 2011, USA Today reported, the average annual pay for major-college football coaches increased by almost 55 percent — to about $1.47 million.

How can that happen, especially at a time when most state-supported agencies and institutions are tightening budgets? After all, most of those coaches work for public universities and therefore are state employees.

The answer is that they are state employees in name only.

In Arkansas, the only state employees whose salaries come anywhere close to what Petrino was making are either coaches or physicians. UA men’s basketball coach Mike Anderson is making $2.2 million for the current fiscal year, and the chief of cardiovascular surgery for the University of Arkansas for Medical Science is making $1 million.

No one else is close to seven figures, a recent survey by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette showed, but Arkansas State University’s new football coach, Gus Malzahn, will apparently make about $850,000 in his first year.

Most public universities have raised the level of competition for coaches’ salaries and other athletic needs by establishing private foundations. By law, the UA Athletic Department can pay its head coach $168,437 this year. The remainder of Petrino’s salary was being paid through a university account funded by the Razorback Foundation. Anderson has the same setup.

Malzahn’s state salary is limited to $156,210 a year. To attract him, ASU had to come up with about $700,000 in private funds for each year of his contract, all of it passing through the private Red Wolf Club.

These private foundations are established under federal Internal Revenue Service Section 170(c)(1), and most enjoy something of an incestuous relationship with the athletic departments they serve. To buy “preferred seating” and obtain other special benefits such as parking privileges, you must contribute to the private foundation, which sets the rules for contributions. You pay the university for the tickets but only after the foundation has determined your eligibility.

The IRS has determined that 80 percent of donations are tax deductible if the donor receives a benefit through the donation.

Here’s the catch with the process: In most states, including Arkansas, the records of the private foundations are not public. Because the coach must sign a state contract, we know what the contract is worth, and we know how much money the foundation provides, but that’s the limit. We have no idea who’s providing that money or what strings might be attached.

It’s hardly surprising then that a coach whose salary comes 5 percent from the state and 95 percent from the foundation would consider the foundation more important to his livelihood.

There’s evidence that Petrino believed that big Razorback boosters, enamored with his winning record, could protect him in spite of his personal indiscretions. He didn’t believe he was or should be accountable.

He was surprised to learn, for example, that texts on his iPhone might be subject to disclosure under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Apparently he hadn’t been paying attention to the controversy over text messages of his predecessor, Houston Nutt. Their disclosure contributed to Nutt’s moving on to Ole Miss.

Afterward, some boosters thought the foundation should protect the coach by furnishing his phone. Whether that would have shielded him from disclosure is arguable. If so, Long might not have had access either.

Although the Razorback Foundation traces its history to the early 1970s, this is not just an Arkansas issue. Most major-college athletic programs also use private foundations for fundraising and enjoy the secrecy they bring to otherwise public functions. In this case, though, the UA did the right thing in spite of the lack of accountability.

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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by email at royo@suddenlink.net