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Big Bluenose Nation is bent out of shape over Petrino hire

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The armchair moralists are purple with indignation over the University of Louisville’s decision to rehire football coach Bobby Petrino, and their umbrage is justified in some respects.

Coach Bobby Petrino is heading back to Louisville

Coach Petrino is heading back to Louisville, despite past transgressions.

Petrino owns a well-earned reputation for being a selfish, mendacious misanthrope. He is a piñata that deserves a thousand whacks.

Tom Jurich’s Q rating has taken a beating too. Rehiring Petrino is the latest in a series of high-profile personnel decisions in which the U of L athletics director has supported company men embroiled in ugly scandals.

Critics say Louisville is running an unprincipled program that has gradually moved from the corner of Floyd and Cardinal to the intersection of Machiavelli and Malcolm X. It’s said that U of L administrators, corrupted by blind ambition, will excuse any misdeed by coaches with the expertise required to compete at the highest level.

Accusations are being leveled by two constituencies that have every right to do so: media pundits (because that’s their job) and disapproving U of L fans (because that’s their program).

But the loudest howls are coming from Big Blue Nation, which has no dog in the fight nor a pebble of moral high ground to stand on.

The University of Kentucky is among the most frequently sanctioned schools in the history of college sports. What’s more, UK made an expedient hire of its own just five years ago, entrusting its famous (and infamous) men’s basketball program to John Calipari – two vacated Final Fours notwithstanding.

It’s been a quite a while since UK has suffered a visit from NCAA investigators, but glass houses don’t morph into marble cathedrals overnight. Old sins grow fresh legs when penitents get haughty and forgetful.

With their indignant yowling, UK fans imply – or downright assert – that their program is an exemplar of probity. Nothing, history shows, could be further from the truth.

For UK fans to pretend otherwise betrays a tragicomic lack of self-awareness, fueled by a convenient case of selective amnesia.

A refresher course in the facts is in order:

The NCAA began placing major violators on probation in 1952. UK’s disregard for NCAA rules has been so pervasive and consistent that the name “Kentucky” has appeared on the official list of reprobates in every decade since – excluding the current one, which is barely three years old.

UK’s football and men’s basketball programs have landed on probation three times each. Only nine schools have been punished more often.

(U of L is not among them. Its men’s basketball program is a three-time offender, but in football, Louisville is one of only 44 major programs without the stigma of NCAA probation.)

The Wildcats’ first probation, which banned the basketball team from intercollegiate play for an entire season, took effect in 1952. The most recent probation, a three-year stint for the football squad, was levied in 2002.

UK has steered clear of the NCAA hoosegow since hiring Mitch Barnhart as AD in 2002. BBN takes the unprecedented run of apparent compliance as proof that the program has changed its ways. And there’s no reason to think it hasn’t.

However, that presumption paints Cardinal-bashing fans into a rhetorical corner. It’s illogical to argue that UK, after 50 years of intermittent perfidy, has forever changed its ways but that Bobby Petrino and Clint Hurtt are incapable of doing the same.

You could argue that UK owes its rehabilitation to hiring different people, not reforming the old ones. While that is true, it ignores the fact that changing personnel doesn’t guarantee a change of culture. Kentucky’s six NCAA probations span the tenures of six head coaches, five ADs, and hundreds of staff members, some of whom were complicit.

The world of college sports gave UK multiple opportunities to atone and reform. It is deeply hypocritical for UK fans to deny the same to Petrino and Hurtt.

The NCAA slapped Hurtt with the dreaded “show-cause” penalty last year after finding Hurtt guilty of serious violations that occurred while he was an assistant coach with the Miami Hurricanes from 2006-2009. Hurtt was still in his twenties then.

Since coming to U of L in 2010, Jurich says Hurtt has performed admirably and compliantly. He accepted a demotion and other sanctions in order to stay on staff. The hanging judges insist he be fired nonetheless.

I don’t recall a similar outcry in 2010 when Calipari chose to retain special assistant Rod Strickland after his fourth DUI.

Hurtt’s actions undermined NCAA rules. Strickland’s action endangered lives. Which, pray tell, is worse?

As for Petrino, the Big Blue Morality Crew says that hiring such a scalawag signals U of L’s willingness to win at all costs. Most of them sang a different tune when UK hired Calipari in 2009.

UK Coach Calipari

UK Coach Calipari

The transgressions of Calipari and Petrino don’t lend themselves to an apples-to-apples comparison. Petrino’s programs, unlike Calipari’s, have never run afoul of the NCAA. Calipari, unlike Petrino, has no record of behaving like a disgracefully deceitful lout.

But the circumstances of their hirings are fairly similar.

Both UK and U of L, in their desire to hire the best coach available, were compelled to look past each man’s checkered past. Winning more and bigger games was the major impetus in each case.

It’s important to note that UK originally believed it could regain its winning ways without Calipari’s help.

By 2007, when Tubby Smith left UK for Minnesota, Calipari’s success at Massachusetts and Memphis had stamped him as a logical choice to take over in Lexington. Whether it was his reputation as a rogue recruiter or the rules violations that expunged UMass’ 1996 Final Four appearance from the NCAA record book, UK turned up its nose at Calipari. A demonstrably inferior coach was hired instead.

By 2009, Billy Gillispie had revealed himself as an inebriate sourpuss who couldn’t keep the Cats out of the NIT. He was summarily fired.

Calipari suddenly looked a whole lot better to UK, even though Memphis had received on Jan. 16 an NCAA Letter of Inquiry alleging academic fraud.

Calipari and Barnhart have said that Calipari informed UK of the investigation during the interview process. But the allegations weren’t made public until May 27, eight weeks after Calipari was hired.

In August, Memphis was stripped of all 38 wins from the 2007-08 season, which ended with the Tigers falling just a few free throws shy of winning the national championship.

Despite two vacated Final Fours, Calipari owns a clean record with the NCAA. He is thereby entitled to employment at any university that wishes to hire him. But UK clearly was troubled by Calipari’s past when it spurned him in 2007.

More black clouds had gathered by 2009, but because Barnhart could ill afford another failed hire, he chose to see the glass half-full.

It’s a clear example of situational ethics. Yet UK fans somehow feel entitled to disparage U of L for employing a similar rationale regarding Petrino.

U of L fans are, of course, prone to occasional fits of pearl-clutching piety themselves. That doesn’t make it right.

Sadly, most of us are inclined to assume the best of those we love and the worst of those we don’t. It’s a simplistic and uncharitable worldview that we’d be better off without.

BBN nearly tore its collective rotator cuff last week patting itself on the back for passing on Petrino last year. Instead UK hired Mark Stoops, a man who, according to one of my Cat-loving friends, represents honesty, integrity and a positive role model for youth.

The same could be said of Bill Curry and Joker Phillips, who discovered that saintly traits are scant protection against a stack of losing seasons. If Stoops doesn’t win, he will drag his moral assets to the unemployment line as well.

Winning über alles – at UK, at U of L, and at every other university that dances with the devil of College Sports Inc. Acknowledging that reality is one thing; approving of it is quite another. Don’t get confused.

As is the case in politics, business and other hypercompetitive pursuits, college athletics is a collection of flawed people making the best of a flawed endeavor.

No school has cornered the market on virtue or vice. Only self-serving simpletons think otherwise.

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