Louisville shows it has no shame in bringing back Bobby Petrino
Next week, athletic officials around the country will convene in San Diego for the NCAA convention, where they'll talk about things like "the enhancement of the student-athlete experience while striving to maintain a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports." Those words were excerpted from a statement issued in November by the American Athletic Conference in regards to ongoing governance issues.
Such boilerplate talking points already ring hollow with countless critics, and is it any wonder why? How can we take these people seriously when one of the conference's own athletic directors -- one of the most prominent ADs in the country, in fact -- just made a farce of that entire statement with his choice for a new football coach?
Bobby Petrino does not enhance student-athletes' experiences; he torpedoes them. And Bobby Petrino is exactly the kind of mercenary that further blurs the line between college and professional sports. Few people are in a position to know that better than Tom Jurich, the Louisville athletic director who, when Petrino was his head coach there from 2003 to '06, watched him openly flirt with multiple NFL and college suitors, then gave him a staggering 10-year contract extension to regain his commitment, only to have Petrino bolt for the Atlanta Falcons six months later. Jurich's program spent the next several years digging out from the perilous state Petrino left it in, while the coach moved on to yet another job at Arkansas, where he napalmed yet another program. Fortunately for Jurich he eventually found a coach, Charlie Strong, who could lead the Cardinals to glory, but once again, that coach moved on to a more glamorous destination (Texas).
So Jurich, faced with finding yet another replacement, scoured the coaching landscape and settled on .... Bobby Freakin' Petrino? Really? Have you no shame, sir?
Don't answer that. There's no need. Jurich is the same guy who allowed Strong to keep ace recruiter Clint Hurtt on his staff even after the NCAA slapped the assistant with penalties for his involvement in the Miami/Nevin Shapiro scandal. Just last spring, Jurich was the toast of his profession after the Cardinals' men's basketball team won a national championship, the football team won a BCS game, the women's basketball team made an appearance in the national championship game and the baseball team went to the College World Series.
Now we're getting a better window into why Jurich's teams win so much. He apparently cares about nothing else. If he did he wouldn't possibly hire back Petrino.
In December 2007, when Petrino abruptly bolted the Atlanta Falcons with three games remaining in his season -- leaving notes in the players' lockers; causing his former defensive coordinator to call him a "coward" who "ruined a bunch of peoples' lives," Jurich told ESPN.com that he was "not totally surprised" because Petrino was "five-for-five" -- in five straight years the coach had pursued another job.
In December 2008, at the end of a miserable 5-7 season under then second-year coach Steve Kragthorpe, Jurich spoke to Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Eric Crawford about the challenges caused by the questionable recruiting choices made by Kragthorpe's predecessor, one Bobby Petrino. (In a surely coincidental pattern, Arkansas finished 0-8 in the SEC in its second year post-Petrino.)
"... We had to clear out a lot of discipline issues," Jurich said then. "And our numbers suffered. We cleared 21 kids out of here, and that's a lot. That's a big hit for anybody to take ... . I don't know anyone that has. But we want to do things the right way."
You read that right, folks. Jurich "wants to do things the right way." Or at least he did five years ago. Today he's hiring back the same guy whose recruits caused those disciplinary issues then, and who, in the interim, hired his mistress to work in the Arkansas football office, got in a motorcycle accident with her, then lied to his employer about the situation. That guy. To do things the right way.
Jurich will introduce Petrino (again) at a news conference Thursday and we can already predict much of what he'll say. Ready? He'll talk about how much Petrino has changed in the last two years, how he's a new man who recommitted to his family and reinvented himself during one transformative 8-4 season at Western Kentucky. He'll probably use the words "zero tolerance" to make sure that we know that Petrino knows he'll be held to a high standard of behavior. One or both of them will say that Louisville's significantly elevated profile since Petrino's first tour of duty makes it a "destination job" and that this is the 52-year-old's "last stop" and "that this is where my family wants to be and where I want to be. But I want everyone to really believe it when it is said."
Which will be a problem, because Petrino already said that last part seven-and-half-years ago at a news conference to announce his Louisville extension.
College administrators often talk behind the scenes about the importance of "winning the press conference." The only way Jurich wins Thursday's is if he walks up to the podium and says: "I know what you're thinking ... and you're all absolutely right. Bobby's a bit of a scoundrel, and he'll probably leave again in four years or less, but we just really want to win a national championship, and if he pulls it off, you'll all forget any of that other stuff ever happened."
Which is true. And not entirely unrealistic.
Petrino, for all his many other flaws, is a premier college football coach. Arguably one of the 10 best in the country. He won 74 percent of his games at a pair of programs (Louisville and Arkansas) that did not historically win that percentage of games and notched a combined two BCS berths and four top 12 finishes in eight seasons. (Western Kentucky marked his ninth.) He's among the sport's most noted offensive innovators, play-callers and quarterback gurus.
Jurich reportedly interviewed seven coaches, and his candidates were believed to include three of the sport's most renowned coordinators, Clemson's Chad Morris, Michigan State's Pat Narduzzi and Stanford's Derek Mason. None of them carry the baggage of Petrino, but none are guaranteed to be successful head coaches. Petrino, on the other hand, is as close to a sure thing as you can get.
And this happens to be a particularly opportune time for Louisville to hire an elite coach. It is moving to the ACC next season, where, for the first time, it will finally be on a level playing field with the sport's other national contenders. In fact it will be in the same conference as the current national champion (Florida State). Strong has already laid the groundwork. He leaves behind the core of a roster that went 12-1 last season. Teddy Bridgewater may be gone, but there could be few better mentors to a new starting quarterback than a guy that's coached three Top 10-rated passers (Stefan LeFors, Brian Brohm and Ryan Mallett).
The Cardinals are ready-made winners, which is important, since Petrino has offered no proof he's capable of building a program himself. Petrino was gone by the time his Louisville and Arkansas rosters were comprised entirely of his recruits. All we know is both imploded shortly thereafter.
Jurich knows this, of course. He's one of the smartest guys in the business. There's no chance Petrino is pulling a fast one on him. On the contrary, Jurich knows exactly what he's doing. He's cashing in all that mileage accrued from a distinguished 16-year tenure to hire perhaps the one available coach that will almost certainly win big, immediately, in Louisville's new conference. If an SEC school comes calling in a few years, oh well. If all goes to plan, the Cardinals will be an established ACC power by then and can attract any coach they want.
In the meantime, let the spin cycle commence. Let Tom Jurich convince you Bobby Petrino is fully committed to "do things the right way."