Louisville hired Bobby Petrino to win, not because he's changed
Tom Jurich should have fully embraced the situation. If the Louisville athletic director was going to approve a web page that announced Bobby Petrino was "Hungry For More," then he should have told Petrino to ride into Thursday's introductory press conference on a motorcycle. Or at least the school's marketing wonks could have come up with a better slogan.
Jurich, one of the sharpest ADs in the country, knew exactly what he was doing when he brought back the prodigal coach. Jurich also knew precisely what the reaction would be. And he almost owned his decision completely. He could have become the first athletic director in the history of college sports to have an honest introductory press conference. He came close on Thursday.
After all, there aren't many introductory pressers that feature the athletic director saying this about the coach he just hired: "I said, If you lie to me, I'll kill you." Or this: "I didn't know he had emotions, to be honest with you."
But Jurich stopped short of simply admitting the real reason he hired Petrino -- who sometimes lied to Jurich about chasing multiple jobs when he coached Louisville from 2003 through '06; who quit on the Atlanta Falcons to go to Arkansas after 13 games in '07; and who hired his mistress at Arkansas, crashed his motorcycle with her aboard and then lied to the Razorbacks' athletic director about whether he had been carrying a passenger. Jurich hired Petrino, with all of his other shortcomings, for one reason: Petrino wins. Jurich's fortunes rise and fall with the fortunes of his football and men's basketball teams. A bad football hire isn't likely to topple him given the success of each of those programs over the last 10 years, but it could weaken his position. So, given an array of candidates, who ranged from intriguing but unproven to was-a-pain-in-the-butt-when-he-coached-here-before-but-went-41-9, guess which one Jurich chose? That's a perfectly understandable decision. It is a decision ripe for mockery because of the nature of Petrino's previous flameouts, but it makes sense.
All Jurich needed to say on Thursday was this: "This is a results-oriented business, and Bobby Petrino, more often than not, achieves the desired result. I didn't hire him to be a good husband or to tell the truth. I didn't hire him to graduate players or to mold men. I hired him to win football games. If he does that, he'll probably leave for a better job even though we wrote a $10 million buyout into his contract. If he doesn't do that, I'll fire him."
This is what every athletic director should say when he hires a coach, because it's the truth. All that mess about integrity and graduation rates that ADs and presidents spout when they hire a coach? They never seem to mention any of it when they fire them after consecutive 5-7 seasons.
For some reason, Jurich decided to dress up his decision on Thursday. Jurich assured his audience that Petrino has changed. "Bobby and I have a lot of history together," Jurich said. "A lot of it's great. A lot of it's not great. I knew that. The one thing I believe in is that Bobby has convinced me he's a changed man." Given the fact that Petrino is a known and proven liar, it's quite possible that he lied to Jurich about changing. But believing Petrino isn't a mistake, either. Because it doesn't matter if Petrino has actually changed. It only matters if he wins.
The false sanctimony that surrounds every aspect of college athletics makes conducting the business of college athletics much trickier. Coaches have to tell parents that they'll spend five years at a school when they know they probably won't. Athletic directors have to tell fans that their job is a destination job even though the last three guys have left for better gigs. Fans want to believe that their school has the most desirable job on earth and that their coach routinely walks across oceans to save carloads of drowning puppies. But that's never the case. For instance, when Louisville gave former coach Charlie Strong a raise last year to ensure that he wouldn't take the Tennessee job, Strong and Jurich acted as if they'd just signed a blood pact, and Strong acted as if coaching the Cardinals was the nation's best job. As Petrino and Chris Rock would attest, a man is only as faithful as his options. When Texas -- which might actually have the nation's most desirable coaching job -- called, Strong left Louisville on the first thing smoking.
Will Petrino leave if he takes the players Strong left behind and builds another winner? He says no. "Tom really understands this is where I want to finish my career. I'm not sure how many people have the opportunity to start their career and then come back and finish it [in the same place]," Petrino said. "Emotionally, I'm tied to doing that. Contractually, I'm tied to doing that. It's a great mix." (Maybe Petrino has changed. Jurich didn't know Petrino had emotions. Did anyone know he also had jokes?)
Why Jurich felt the need to sell Petrino as anything other than a guy who wins football games is mystifying. Yet he tried on Thursday. "Has anybody been through more adversity than him?" Jurich asked rhetorically. "I can't imagine. I can't imagine." Let's try to imagine. Off the top of the head, here are a few people who have been through more adversity than Bobby Petrino: soldiers, orphans, cancer survivors, victims of violent crime and, of course, Bobby Petrino's wife and children. Or maybe Jurich just meant within the world of sports. Even still, there are thousands who faced more adversity, and their adversity wasn't caused by their own dishonesty and stupidity.
Jurich didn't need to prop up Petrino as some sort of reclamation project. If he has changed, that's great. If he hasn't, who cares? The world is filled with liars and philanderers who succeed in their chosen profession. It doesn't make their transgressions any less wrong. Nor does it make them role models. If Jurich is polishing an ACC championship trophy in four years, it won't matter if Petrino told him the truth or even if Petrino is still at Louisville. Jurich will have achieved his desired goal with this hire, and all parties will be better off for the transaction.
There will be plenty of people who rip this hire because it sends the wrong message. That won't happen here. This hire sends a realistic message. Sad as it may be, professional success can make up for a lot of personal flaws. Besides, the first time Petrino coached the Cardinals, he caused more anguish for one man than any other. "The guy who took the brunt is right here," Jurich said, referring to himself. Jurich could have held a grudge. Instead, he realized he could use Petrino to further his own professional aims.
That's smart business. For once, Jurich could have treated the hiring of a coach like the business decision it is. Instead, he chose to wrap it in the "changed man" narrative that no one really believes and no one will actually care about as long as Petrino keeps winning.