The college of Cardinals isn’t quite ready to make it official, but white smoke is billowing from the chimneys on Belknap Campus.
We have a coach.
Or in the decidedly unclassical language of Marshall Mathers, reluctant football commentator and rapper extraordinaire:
Guess who’s back?
Tell a friend
The University of Louisville is expected to announce tomorrow that it is rehiring Bobby Petrino, the shadiest character in college football.
It’s a risky move: divisive, semi-mercenary and morally ambiguous.
It’s also the right move.
U of L athletics director Tom Jurich has a duty to hire the best coach available, and Petrino’s football acumen is beyond question. He owns a .734 winning percentage in the college ranks, and his explosive offense is perfectly suited to the point-a-minute pace of the modern game.
Moreover, like all human beings, Jurich is duty-bound to forgive, if not forget – provided the transgressor is genuinely contrite and demonstrably committed to changing his ways.
I have no idea if Petrino meets either standard. I do know that, aside from his wife and family, Petrino betrayed no one as badly as Jurich in recent years. If Jurich believes Petrino deserves a second chance, who am I (or you) to say otherwise?
Petrino, 52, must be regarded with skepticism nonetheless. He is entitled to a fresh start but not a clean slate. He behaved too badly for too long.
From 2003-12, Petrino went on a sociopathic binge that scorched the earth from Louisville to Atlanta to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. He broke contracts, shattered vows, bullied subordinates and lied to his bosses at every turn.
He quit the Falcons at midseason. He forced the University of Arkansas to fire him on the eve of the most eagerly anticipated football season in decades, throwing the program into a state of disarray from which it has yet to recover.
Professionally, however, he treated no one worse than U of L.
He repeatedly went behind Jurich’s back to interview with other schools: Auburn in 2003, LSU and Notre Dame in 2004. Then in 2007, mere days after winning the Orange Bowl and reiterating his commitment to U of L, Petrino sneaked off to Atlanta – just six months after signing a 10-year deal.
Karma finally caught up to Petrino on April Fool’s Day, 2012.
Out for a Sunday drive, he wrecked his Harley Davidson with his 25-year-old mistress aboard. Seriously injured and nationally disgraced, Petrino was stripped of his job, his dignity and, very nearly, his family as well.
The “A” on Petrino’s golf shirts was emblematic of Hester Prynne, not Frank Broyles. Arkansas sent him into exile without a cent of severance pay, reportedly leaving Petrino saddled with two multimillion-dollar mortgages (on homes in Fayetteville and Atlanta) and mounting legal bills (he had hired his mistress against state law).
In August that year, facing an autumn without football for the first time in 40 years, Petrino muttered an act of contrition at the altar of ESPN.
“I’ve made mistakes,” he said, “and I’m going to be a better person for it.”
Western Kentucky believed him. Its reward was an 8-4 season, the school’s best mark in six years as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision (ne̒e Division I-A).
Now, apparently, U of L believes him, too.
Its reward? A veteran coach who is uniquely qualified to hit the ground running. Unlike other candidates, Petrino knows the town, the campus and the administration – and he has been a head coach for 10 years.
U of L can’t afford a learning curve right now. In September it joins the Atlantic Coast Conference and tackles a schedule that boasts six bowl teams from 2013, including Notre Dame, Clemson, Miami and national champion Florida State.
The Cardinals must take this quantum leap while replacing at least nine starters, including four sure-fire NFL draft picks: quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, defensive end Marcus Smith and safeties Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith.
There is much work to do and only eight months to do it. U of L can’t afford any rookie mistakes.
Petrino owns the experience required to sustain the program’s momentum and, as an added bonus, perhaps continue its recent dominance of archrival Kentucky. Petrino is 5-1 against UK: 4-0 at U of L, 1-0 at WKU, and 0-1 at Arkansas.
Shady’s back. The reason is simple: He is far and away the best man for the job, behavioral baggage aside.
Many people won’t put it aside. The backlash has already begun.
Twitter and talk radio bristled last weekend with fans who vociferously objected to the mere idea of interviewing Petrino. Freshly abandoned by Charlie Strong, they are doubly averse to forgiving a habitual lothario who dumped them before.
Others objected on ethical grounds.
Tuesday morning, before U of L had even interviewed Petrino, The Courier-Journal published an editorial advising Jurich to look elsewhere, citing Petrino’s “legendary reputation for evasion, infidelity and job-hopping.” C-J sports columnist Tim Sullivan made a similar argument Tuesday afternoon.
The yowls of disapproval won’t subside anytime soon. Jurich, no doubt, is confident he can weather the storm. And he will – if Petrino lives up to his end of the bargain this time.
Last year, UK declined to roll the dice on Petrino and hired Mark Stoops instead. I thought it was a mistake. The Wildcats desperately need a proven coach who can crash the steel ceiling of their subterranean hovel in the Southeastern Conference.
“We’re not that desperate,” said UK fans who praised AD Mitch Barnhart for resisting Petrino’s X-and-O appeal. And that’s fine. Many U of L fans wish Jurich would do the same.
But there’s a bit of double standard at play. Plenty of UK fans scorned John Calipari and his two vacated Final Fours … until their basketball program needed an emergency rescue from the brief and bollixed tenure of Billy Gillispie.
Hiring Calipari also was a risky move: mildly divisive, semi-mercenary and morally ambiguous. But it was the right move, too.
Successful athletics directors have to take some calculated risks. ADs who always make the safe hire are like quarterbacks who always make the safe throw. You don’t win the Super Bowl with Alex Smith. You win it with Brett Favre.
Whether it’s Petrino or Calipari, to characterize either hire as a “win at all costs” move is hypocritical and naïve. There are no vestal virgins in the bordello of college sports. Some are purer than others, but it’s mostly a matter of degree. And revelation.
Coaches wear whistles, not halos. Joe Paterno had Jerry Sandusky; John Wooden had Sam Gilbert. The world eventually finds a skeleton in the closet of every saint.
So enough with the finger-pointing already.
Our society gives second chances to criminals, politicians and wayward spouses every day. Why should Bobby Petrino be any different?
His wife took him back. Why shouldn’t U of L?
Virtually no one complained when WKU hired Petrino. Why is it evidence of moral turpitude for U of L to do the same?
We don’t know if Petrino is a changed man. We do know that he paid a steep price for his sins, personally and financially.
Despite his sparkling résumé, he didn’t even get a sniff last year at plum jobs like Auburn, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Nineteen other needy programs spurned him too.
There is no statute of limitations on being an unfaithful, tyrannical jerk. But no exile should last forever. Petrino deserves a second chance.
So do fans who shelled out big bucks for season tickets and personal seat licenses. They paid to see a rising program, not a rebuilding one.
Above all, the players Strong abandoned deserve a second chance. They enrolled at U of L to compete for championships and hone their skills for a shot at the pros. The school owes those young men the best head coach it can possibly hire.
That’s why Tom Jurich will hire Bobby Petrino, baggage and all.
We don’t know if the white smoke from South Floyd Street heralds the return of a hopeless sinner or a penitent prodigal son. We do know that the Great Scorekeeper urged his minions to love one another, not judge one another.
But go ahead. Cast the first stone.