He was 1-1 in BCS bowls as head coach.
And, if all of the reports, rumors, tweets, and internet yelling is accurate, he will once again pace the sidelines at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium next season.
I have no idea how to feel about that.
First, some background, I came of age watching Howard Schnellenberger at Old Cardinal Stadium. I remember hearing swearing and seeing beverages spilled because of Brett Favre and Southern Miss. During the Cooper era, I watched VHS tape of the Fiesta Bowl win over the Crimson tide to remind myself of excellent Cardinal football. I remember the John L. departure for Michigan State. I remember the arrival and departure of Petrino. I remember the dark years. I remember wondering if we’d ever see competent football again.
Then I remembered not being cut that way, until all of us were cut in precisely the way we should have anticipated.
Now, less than a few days after that trim, we learn that we might be going back to party like it’s the early 2000s. Black uniforms, Thursday night football games. The Super Mario stiff arm. Jeremy Ito. Orange Bowl.
On the one hand, I’m excited to see Bobby again. It’s like getting to see a master get another shot at producing a masterpiece. The conditions are right—this is a high-powered offense waiting to happen. It will be like watching a virtuoso perform. The sound will be like a finely tuned engine, screaming with the sounds of the train whistle with each touchdown.
The job is different now. Arguably, if Louisville had had these facilities, these attendance numbers, and this conference affiliation, the Falcons may have had a much harder time prying Petrino away. Note, I said, "may." Petrino has always had ambition. He wants to win. He wants to win at the highest level he can. For a time, his focus on "winning" bled over into his focus on being "invincible" and nearly cost him everything.
If he has this job, we won’t hear complaints from Petrino about how many fans are in seats. We won’t hear complaints about where football rates at Louisville. He probably won’t show up at many basketball games because I’m not sure he even cares about other sports.
We’ll hear complaints about not beating Kentucky by enough touchdowns and not locking down Florida State receivers. We like that.
Petrino is different now, too. There are the ESPN interviews. The WDRB interviews. The rumored nine-hour meeting with Tom Jurich. He’s been jpeg’d, gif’d, and probably has his own meme on one of a dozen SEC, Big XII, NFL, and now ACC boards. "Everyday Should be Saturday," will have a field day with this hire. He’s been neck-braced, motorcycled, and shamed. (I’m holding back on the bawdy stuff.)
Now that he's been hired, all those memes will all happen again.
He had an affair with a woman, and then he hired her. There’s no way to spin that, it’s not ethical, moral, or remotely acceptable.
And if he was a member of the faculty at Arkansas—not the captain of a multi-million dollar enterprise—he would never, ever, have had a shot at an academic job. Anywhere. It would surprise me if the faculty at Louisville—particularly those who follow college athletics—are quiet about this hire.
So to see him get another chance, opportunity, shot, job—whatever you want to call it—might feel a bit off to a lot of people. "He burned us once, he’ll burn us again," say some. "Louisville has spent all of its rebuilt reputation with this hire," say others. "I’ll never cheer for Louisville football again," say more.
I understand those statements, all of them. At the same time, welcome to college sports where, for two decades, a university allowed athletes to maintain a fifth or eighth-grade reading level and never attend classes. Where another player is accused of sexual transgressions and ESPN gives updates on the status of those accusations to appease Heisman voters--not out of concern for the parties involved. Coaches and student-athletes are held to different standards today. College sports are big business and they aren’t pretty.
Many don’t like this hire because they feel like they are losing the moral high ground relative to that university up the road. I get that. Stoops didn’t pull any tricks at Florida State, but Calipari had his records vacated. Don’t even get us started on World Wide Wes. We’ve given no small amount of grief to Kentucky fans for winning at any cost.
This Petrino hire throws us right into the "win at all costs" narrative, rightly or wrongly. But, it should remind us that the business of college athletics, above all else, is the business of winning. Louisville doesn’t get into the ACC by losing Big East games and championships. It doesn’t build the most profitable athletic program in the country on losing.
What hurts most is the guy who won and who we believed didn't fall into the "win at any costs narrative" shopped his resume and left without even telling his players goodbye.
Petrino wins. His athletes fulfill their obligations as students and stay out of the papers. Will that be enough?
No one is asking us to like what he did, though. So what is the question that Petrino answers?
I don’t know Tom Jurich. I met him once and shook his hand shortly before we lost to Akron in the championship game of the College Cup at UCSB. I thanked him for the work he did for the university—and for building all of these programs.
He said in response, "It wasn’t me. It was the players. They deserve all the credit."
Those few words, and a bit of internet speculation, might give us a sense of where Tom Jurich stands on this hire.
I remembered that exchange when I read Eric Crawford’s tweet about what Jurich said to players after Strong left them in the lurch: "I don’t care who was wearing the headset. It’s your work that built this program and will determine our future."
Look at the tweets we’ve seen the last few days. Current players have stated their support. Former players—including Chris Redman, Mike Bush, and Brian Brohm—have tweeted their support. The players want this coach. They’ve spoken and they’re on board.
The players play, the coaches coach. The fans remain fanatics.
Our response these last few days has been nothing short of fanatical—some of that has been necessary, most of that has been unnecessary. We cheer for the same team. We love the same university and the same city. That passion, mixed with a bit of internet anonymity, and questions of on-the-field successes and off-the-field fiascoes creates a volatile Chronicle climate. (Calmer than you are.)
The head coach of the Louisville football team is not the university. Part of our mistake with Charlie Strong was to believe, deeply, that he and the university formed a single, indivisible family. His players believed that, too. We were all wrong.
Strong was paid more than either coach in the National Championship game. Strong said his heart was with Louisville. One of those observations is still true.
But Strong won games. Petrino will, too.
With Bobby Petrino, Tom Jurich knows exactly what he is getting. A coach with obvious flaws—some so severe that he’d be out of consideration if he worked in other fields—but also a coach that has publicly stated, before the job was even made available, that he now can help players understand the road to leave untraveled. He has expressed his regrets. He wants to take the Louisville job again—and he may even want to stay long enough to fulfill Schnellenberger’s dream. After all, Petrino is not getting hired in the NFL again and, while we may be a stepping-stone job for schools like Texas, he’d be hard pressed to find a fan base more excited for his future—and more forgiving of his past—than this one.
The job of being a college coach is hard. It is hard on families. It is hard on friends. For every public fiasco on the order of Petrino’s there are thousands of private tragedies—families broken, careers wasted, drugs and alcohol abused—that we don’t hear about. The only sins that we, as fans, have the luxury of concerning ourselves with are losses and high-profile disasters like what happened on that state road in Arkansas.
Jurich has decided that for his players and program he’s willing to risk the losses and disasters once again. Tom Jurich believes that the players and the university are bigger than the transgressions of one man. The reputation of this university--like the reputation of her city--is built on the people as a whole, not the actions of a few.
The players want to win. Their coaches want to do the same.
Bobby Petrino is going to be the head coach of the University of Louisville.
I have no idea how to feel about that, but I want to see him succeed.