Dallas — Larry Cochell is 65 and should have known better. He grew up in Lebanon, Ore., not some Southern backwater. He was a teenager when the Supreme Court ruled against Topeka's Board of Education; a graduate student when Selma police turned fire hoses on civil rights marchers; a caring, respected head coach when ESPN broadcasters asked about one of his Oklahoma baseball players, who happened to be black.
Cochell knew better than to use the n-word, even if he was trying to compliment Joseph Dunigan.
He didn't know ESPN's Gary Thorne or Kyle Peterson at all. And he's comfortable enough to use one of the world's most powerful words, the thorniest epithet of all?
And because of Cochell's choice of words, he loses a career, and we're left with questions we'd have never thought to ask.
Confession: I don't know Cochell. From all I've heard and read, he's a fine man whose only problem lately was his program's slippage since winning the College World Series in 1994.
His recent record probably didn't make it any harder for David Boren to ask for his resignation, but it wasn't really an issue, either.
Could Bob Stoops have made the same comment and kept his job? Not if Oklahoma ever wanted to sign a black football recruit who only can judge the Sooners' coach on his word, not personal experience.
Your word matters. Words matter. A man who has 24 hours toward his doctorate knows the power of language and communication.
Larry Cochell seems to understand that now. In a statement Sunday, he said he regretted that he "carelessly used language that is clearly contrary to the basic values of our university" and "created an impression contrary to my own personal values and my respect for all people."
Of course, that's exactly what he did: Created an impression of both OU and himself, however inaccurate it might be.
And that's why the university had to let him go. Because he's a racist? Who knows? At the very least, you've got to believe he's comfortable with the word if he's using it in front of strangers.
Still, no one's accusing him. Some have even come to his defense, including black leaders on campus.
Joe Dunigan's father told The Daily Oklahoman that he bears no hard feelings toward Cochell, a man who has "treated us like family."
"We all say things that we don't mean," Joe Dunigan Jr. said, "and I hope people down there don't color him as a racist because he made a mistake."
Charles Caufield, the father of the other black player on the OU team, also forgave Cochell for what he termed "a small thing."
Cochell is fortunate that the parents were so gracious and forgiving. But they know him, or at least they thought they did.
Thorne and Peterson didn't know him at all, and that's always dangerous, as one of those parents will tell you.
"You got to watch what you say," Caufield told The Oklahoman, "because they can twist it and make a story and then run with it."
Not exactly sure how you twist this phrase: "There's no (racial epithet) in him."
Or this one: "There are honkies and white people, and there are (racial epithet) and black people."
In 28 years as a sports writer, I've heard coaches say a lot of stupid things, but I've never heard one use the n-word, much less to classify people.
Words travel faster and wider. Larry Cochell, an educated man, knows that now. He may not be a racist, but it's a question forever, and he's the one who brought it up.