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Lather, rinse, repeat: Is Louisville's Bobby Petrino truly a changed man?

Lather, rinse, repeat: Is Louisville's Bobby Petrino truly a changed man? Photo:

This story appears in the Aug. 18, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

On the first evening in July, a boisterous crowd gathered in downtown Louisville, ostensibly to celebrate the University of Louisville’s official entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference. It was a noteworthy moment because power-conference affiliation in college sports is the clearest path to financial survival. But let’s not kid ourselves: The hundreds of Cardinals fans who chose to spend a sweltering early-summer night crammed into a pedestrian block were there because it had been 95 days since the basketball team was eliminated from the NCAA tournament by Kentucky and it would be 62 more days before the football team kicked off its 2014 season at home against Miami. Those fans needed a fix.

At a few minutes past seven, a shrilly enthusiastic emcee introduced football coach Bobby Petrino, who walked to the center of the stage dressed in Cardinals-themed golf wear. The audience screamed in recognition and then chanted Petrino’s name—Bob-bee! Bob-bee! Bob-bee!—for a full 18 seconds before he requested silence with a subtle wave of his hand, as a king might calm his subjects, and with the awkward half smile that is his default facial expression.

This was the same Bobby Petrino who coached the Cards to 41 victories from 2003 through ’06—including a 12-1 record, an Orange Bowl win and a No. 6 AP national ranking in his last season—and then left to become coach of the Falcons less than six months after signing a 10-year contract to remain at Louisville. It was the same Petrino who left the Falcons with three games remaining in his only season in Atlanta, to take over at Arkansas. It was, notoriously, the same Petrino whose four-year tenure with the Razorbacks, who won 21 games in his last two seasons, ended when he crashed a motorcycle while riding with his 25-year-old mistress, whom he had hired to work in his office. That Bob-bee.

Petrino, who was rehired by Louisville last January after Charlie Strong left for Texas, took the microphone and thanked the fans for coming. Then he launched into full pep-rally mode. He listed challenging games at Virginia, Clemson and Notre Dame and then paused dramatically before punching this line about Florida State: “And on a Thursday night at home, the defending national champions! Y’all be there for that one, right? I might never sleep again.”

Petrino was then joined onstage by two players in full black uniforms, and the coach brought the show to a rollicking finish with the news that “on September 1, 8 p.m., Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, we’re bringing back the Blackout!” It was a reference to the Miami game and to a tradition—players in black uniforms and fans in black shirts—that Petrino had begun for a game against West Virginia in 2006 and had since been abandoned.

As he walked off the stage and into the twilight, the crowd roared its approval. Bob-bee! Bob-bee! ...

*****

Four hours earlier, Petrino sits in his office for an interview, his chair positioned at a 90-degree angle to a reporter’s. His workspace is in the north end zone of the stadium, with a panoramic view of the field.

The interview has not been easy to arrange. It was requested weeks earlier, through Louisville’s media relations department. A negotiation ensued. Petrino and the p.r. staff wondered if the interview would include questions about his past and, if so, when that past might no longer be part of the narrative—because, frankly, his family was tired of reading about it. And Petrino had done plenty of talking about it when he was hired.

Answer: Petrino’s “past” will always be part of the narrative. A couple of national championships might push the word motorcycle from the second paragraph of his obituary to the third or fourth, but motorcycle will be written. Petrino and his staff also wanted to know if the story would be “positive,” something that could not be guaranteed.

In his previous coaching incarnations—at Louisville, Atlanta and Arkansas—Petrino was painfully awkward with the media. He arrived at press conferences looking as if he had just gnawed on a lemon. A few days before that Blackout game in 2006, in the atrium of the Louisville football headquarters, he was answering some softball questions designed to set up a possible SI story about the Cardinals’ great season if they were to defeat the Mountaineers. (They did, 44-34.) In the middle of one question he turned and walked away, as if he had forgotten something so important that he felt no need to excuse himself. It wasn't so much disrespectful as asocial and strange. “When Bobby was here before,” says university president James T. Ramsey, “he was an introvert who cared about football and family. Of course, since then, he’s learned a hard lesson about family.”

Now here he sits, charged with driving home the message that Louisville has propagated since he was rehired after a year in repose and a year as the coach at Western Kentucky: Bobby is a changed man. Ramsey reiterated that this very morning. “We all screw up,” he said. “A lot of powerful people forget what’s important. Bobby went through a hard process and then committed himself to changing.”

Athletic director Tom Jurich, who in 17 years has grown Louisville’s athletic budget from about $15 million to more than $70 million, is the man who brought Petrino back, with the rubber-stamp approval of Ramsey and the university’s athletic association. “Tom has complete autonomy,” says Jonathan Blue, who runs a private equity firm in Louisville and sits on the university’s board of trustees. “He goes into a room, and when we see white smoke, he’s got his hire.”

Jurich says of inviting Petrino back, “I don’t feel like I’m taking a risk. I’ve known Bobby since the late 1980s. I know his history. Some of it is good, some of it bad. But I know he’s a changed person.”

But it’s up to Petrino to close the deal, to sell himself as transformed. It’s hard work, being changed. It’s even harder work acting changed—“and Bobby’s no actor,” says Jurich. “You wouldn’t cast him to play a role.” After he was fired from Arkansas in April 2012, Petrino says, he and his wife, Becky, moved to a temporary home on a golf course in Rogers, Ark., 23 miles north of the mess he left behind in Fayetteville. He set up one of their three bedrooms as his office and loaded a laptop with All-22 coaching software. The rest of the house, he says, was devoted to saving a relationship that had begun three decades earlier when he and Becky Schaff were students at Carroll College in Helena, Mont. (Asked what year they were married, he says, “Nineteen eighty-five? Maybe? I think.” To be fair, a lot of football coaches would be flummoxed by the question.)

“It was just the two of us up there,” says Petrino, “and it was work. We went through counseling together. The whole thing was really hard on her.” He says they drove from Arkansas to Montana after a death in Bobby’s family; then to Fort Collins, Colo., to watch their younger daughter, Katie, play in a tournament with the Cardinals’ women’s golf team; then back to Louisville to watch her play again. All the time, just the two of them in the car. He says they’re good now—“the best we’ve ever been”—but it’s taken time. A request to interview Becky was denied.

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Petrino made another trip, during the fall of 2012, to Berkeley, Calif., where he says he “clinicked” Cal coach Jeff Tedford and his offensive staff for three days. He spent a day in Nashville with a friend who coaches for the NFL’s Titans and another with a friend on the West Alabama staff. Those were social visits. He was frequently in Louisville to watch golf matches. On those trips he noticed people looking at him in airports. “Hard standing there, waiting for your luggage,” Petrino says. “You hear people talking, you feel embarrassed. But some people were supportive, too. And I couldn’t just sit in a hole. I really had to get out and go places.”

As Petrino tells these stories, he is engaged but ill at ease. He sits upright, two sneakers planted on the carpet as if he’s a child serving a timeout. He’s trying, pushing the new Bobby, staying on point. When the questioning is steered to disciplinary issues in his first tenure at Louisville, he says, “I don’t know about the first time here, but with the situation at Arkansas, I’ve learned that the No. 1 priority is my family.” His older daughter, Kelsey, lives in Louisville with her husband, L.D. Scott, whom Petrino hired as his defensive line coach. The Scotts have two children. “Here’s a difference you see in Coach Petrino,” says Eric Wood, who played for him at Louisville and is the starting center for the Buffalo Bills. “You see him coming off the practice field grabbing his grandkids with a big smile on his face.”

It’s likely that the near-breakup of his family has deeply affected Petrino, but this interview is also something of a dance, and a microcosm of the hypocrisy inherent in big-time college sports. Jurich rehired Petrino not because he’s a reformed man but because he’s a gifted coach—“a genius-level offensive mind,” says a member of the Falcons’ organization. Nobody in a position of power at Louisville denies this.

Strong quit on Jan. 4, and five days later Jurich hired Petrino after one phone conversation and a long day together on the campus. “I dug deep,” says Jurich. But he also hired Petrino to fill seats and generate revenue. “What hire would I make that wouldn’t be that way?” he asks. “The biggest criticism I got here was hiring Rick Pitino for $1 million a year. How did that work out? There’s an incredible excitement with Bobby coming back. All 63 of our suites at Papa John’s are sold for the season [at $50,000 apiece]. There’s a waiting list for season tickets.”

Blue, the trustee and fan, says, “College sports are a business, first and foremost. People in the Louisville community look forward to attending games and seeing a strong product on the field. Bobby will produce that. This isn’t a governor or a mayor we’re talking about. This is a football coach.” According to a person who attended the meeting at which Petrino’s hiring was unanimously approved by the athletic board, “There was discussion, but there was nothing about marital infidelity. It was mostly Bobby’s flight risk. Is he going to leave again?”

But Petrino is most famous outside college football’s bubble for hiring his young lover to work in the Razorbacks’ football office, wrecking a motorcycle with her aboard and then keeping it from his employer for four days. You can't bring back that guy to coach your student-athletes without some public assurance that he has served penance and reembraced certain values, and if that's actually true, all the better. But Petrino's extramarital affair is only part of a deeper pattern. Petrino, who has been a coach since he graduated from college 31 years ago, has a brilliant football mind, but his career has been marked by megalomania, immaturity and disloyalty. Perhaps, at 53, he has outgrown those weaknesses. Louisville will know soon enough.

But consider this: As SI reported this story, a source with ties to members of the Cardinals’ football program provided information that was then presented to Petrino for confirmation or denial. Just hours after this exchange, Petrino called a staff meeting and, according to the source, who spoke anonymously because he is still employed in athletics, said, “Shut your f------ mouths about things that go on in my building. Things are getting out. Guys are talking. If you’re not happy, get the f--- out and leave.”

*****

It comes as no surprise that Petrino is the son of a coach. Bob (Putter) Petrino Sr., now 77 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was a football, basketball and baseball star at Butte (Mont.) Central High. He became a high school coach in his mid-20s, and in 1971, at 34, he took over the athletics program at Carroll College, an NAIA school in the state capital, Helena. In 28 years Putter won 64.4% of his games, earning 16 Frontier Conference titles and nine appearances in the NAIA playoffs. He did all of this by sticking with the triple-option veer offense, which was created in the late 1960s, and by demanding discipline and effort.

“Bobby’s dad expected you to work hard,” says Tim Burton, who played for Putter—and with Bobby—at Carroll from 1978 through ’81 and is now chief of staff for Montana governor Steve Bullock. “You ran onto the field for practice, and you ran off afterward. If we had a bad practice, there was a hill next to the field. It was 50 or 75 yards. Bobby’s dad would decide how many times we ran up that hill. He made sure we were prepared. And he had a deeper understanding of the game than most.”

Putter Petrino had two sons: Bobby was born in March 1961 and Paul, who is now the coach at Idaho, six years later. At around age two Bobby started going to his father’s high school practices. Later, on game days, he charted offensive plays. Back home in the backyard he and his friends ran the simple, efficient plays—Option at 4, Option at 5—for fun. “I knew at a young age,” says Bobby, “that I was going to be a coach someday.”

First, though, he was a player. As a senior he was the starting quarterback at Helena’s Capital High, running for 11 touchdowns and passing for 11 more. “He was the smartest kid on the team, and the toughest, and the best athlete,” says one high school and college teammate (who didn’t want his name used because, he said, “I don’t want to get involved in any Petrino drama”). According to a 2004 article in the Independent Record, a Helena newspaper, the state championship game of Bobby’s senior year was played in temperatures that dipped to -18 degrees and is remembered as the Frozen Bowl. Bobby went on an 80-yard touchdown run and scored the game-winner on a sneak from the one.

He matriculated at Carroll and became the starting quarterback as a 5'11", 170-pound sophomore. In three seasons he led his father’s Fighting Saints to three straight conference titles and was a two-time conference MVP. “One of the toughest guys I’ve ever known,” says Burton. “When it came to crunch time, we just knew Bobby would make a play for us.” Bobby played basketball, too, averaging 20.0 points as a senior and surpassing 1,000 in his career.

After college he went straight into coaching. He spent three years under his father and was already a nine-year coaching veteran in 1992, when he was hired as Bruce Snyder’s quarterbacks coach at Arizona State. One of his players there was Jake Plummer, a skinny freshman from Boise who would play 10 seasons in the NFL.

Plummer had never met anyone like Petrino. “Kind of small, but really cocky,” says Plummer, now a studio analyst for Pac-12 football telecasts. “Not a jerk, but he rubbed me the wrong way at first. Petrino was this in-your-face dude who knew way more about football than I did.” Plummer recalls Petrino as a stickler for tiny details, such as precision in drawing plays on a whiteboard. “There aren’t any lines on those boards,” says Plummer, “and we would draw a 10-yard hook and Petrino would yell at us, ‘I said 10 yards!’ We’d look at him like, ‘Coach, there’s no lines on the board.’ But he wanted it perfect.”

Plummer caught some undercurrents of disagreement between Petrino and his boss, Snyder, over offensive philosophy. Snyder, who died in 2009, was more of a two-running-back, tight end coach. “Petrino wanted to spread it out and throw it around,” says Plummer. “I was kind of mellow, and he pushed me to be a leader. I learned to love the guy.”

Petrino stayed only two years in Tempe before hitting the road for five more stops in 10 years, including a season as offensive coordinator at Louisville (1998) and three seasons as quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator with the Jacksonville Jaguars (’99 through 2001). He ran Tommy Tuberville’s offense at Auburn in ’02 before Jurich brought him back to Louisville for his first head coaching gig, at 41.

There’s no debating Petrino’s success with the Cardinals. They won Conference USA in 2004 and the Big East in ’06, and in each of those years they won a bowl game and finished No. 6 in the AP poll, best in the school’s history. But problems arose off the field. Petrino was on the cusp of the offensive explosion that overtook college (and pro) football in the 2000s—his ’04 team scored 49.8 points per game—and every college athletic director and NFL general manager with a coaching vacancy saw Petrino as a chalkboard savant who could shred defenses. He didn’t handle the attention appropriately. In ’03 he met secretly with Auburn representatives while Tuberville was still coach. A year later he met with LSU representatives when Nick Saban left for the Dolphins. “He was a first-time [head] coach, and everybody was coming at [him],” Jurich says forgivingly. “It was a lot to deal with.”

Petrino’s own program, meanwhile, was struggling with discipline problems that wouldn’t become fully apparent until he was gone, and his successor, Steve Kragthorpe, began dismissing Petrino’s recruits. (Some other players quit.) In a 2008 interview with Eric Crawford of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Jurich laid the blame at Petrino’s feet: “Bobby went to areas where he thought he was strong recruiting, and some of them panned out and some didn’t. ... We cleared 21 kids out of here, and that’s a lot. That’s a big hit for anybody to take. ... But we want to do things the right way.”

Players from that era recall a Wild West atmosphere that included widespread gun use. “It was a bunch of tough guys,” says Craig James, a cornerback from Jacksonville who signed with Louisville in 2005, then left the program and finished at Northern Iowa. “Coach Petrino and his staff went to the slums. When you go to those bad neighborhoods and you bring kids from the streets to a university, sometimes you bring the streets in with them. Guns and fights—I mean we would have riots.”

Today Jurich takes the hit for Petrino. “I should have given Bobby more oversight,” he says. “Not so much in recruiting, because I think Bobby took the same kind of players we’ve always taken. But we had issues once those players got here. I should have done a better job watching his players. And this time around I will be more helpful in that regard.”

There were also many Cardinals who flourished under Petrino and relished the experience. Wood, who developed into a first-round NFL draft pick at Louisville, says, “I saw countless players who could not handle Coach Petrino’s style of coaching. He demands excellence, and he’s not warm and fuzzy. He never lets you feel comfortable as a player. If you can handle it mentally, you’ll be a good football player and a good person off the field.”

Petrino knows his reputation. “Development of the player has always been huge to me,” he says. “This time I’m trying to be better at knowing the person. I will say this: Football is a hard game. And players need to be in the locker room complaining about their coaches, because that’s when they bond.”

*****

Six days after Louisville’s 24-13 win over Wake Forest in the 2007 Orange Bowl, Petrino signed a five-year, $24 million contract with the Falcons. At the time Michael Vick was a six-year veteran with a history of sensational playmaking mixed with wild inconsistency (71 touchdown passes and 52 interceptions). The Atlanta brain trust saw Petrino as a mentor to Vick. That never came to be. Word of Vick’s involvement in the Bad Newz Kennels broke in April 2007, and in August the quarterback was suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

“It was over for us in May, and Bobby knew it,” says a member of the Falcons’ organization during the Petrino days. “He did a terrible job of handling it. Instead of burrowing in and making the best of a tough situation, he became angry. He’s like that 15-year-old boy who’s just a competitor, and if he loses, it’s somebody else’s fault. He was immature. He just couldn’t handle adversity. And in the pro game you’re going to have things go wrong.”

Petrino resigned from the Falcons on Dec. 11, with three games left in the season. He never spoke to the team; instead he left a laminated four-sentence note in each player’s locker. Veteran safety Lawyer Milloy wrote coward on the note and displayed it for media members. Petrino also tried to leave without speaking to the assistant coaches he had hired, but he was coaxed into a room with them by Falcons executives. That same night he was named the Razorbacks’ coach. Even seven years later Petrino can’t summon a full apology for his embarrassing departure. “That’s the hard thing on coaches,” he says. “When there are jobs that come open, the AD wants to hire you, and he’s not interested in how you leave a job. That Arkansas job was an opportunity that wasn’t going to be there three or four weeks down the road.”

In Fayetteville, Petrino got the Hogs to 10-3 and 11-2 in the final two of his four seasons. He lost a 65-43 shootout to Cam Newton’s Auburn in 2010, and he fell to Alabama both years. One of those losses was competitive (24-20 in ’10), the other was not (38-14 in ’11). Petrino’s offense rang up points, and its members loved playing for him. “He was tough,” says Ryan Mallett, Arkansas’s quarterback in ’09 and ’10, “and he wanted tough players. Anybody who couldn’t deal with that, that’s their loss. I’ll tell you what: We were always prepared.”

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Mallett recalled a fourth-quarter fourth-and-three from LSU’s 39-yard line in late November 2010. “Coach Petrino called me over and said, ‘Are you ready to run 80 Pass?’” says Mallett. “That was a double move for [wide receiver] Joe Adams on the Honey Badger [LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu]. We had that play in all year and never used it.” Mallett threw for a touchdown that gave the Razorbacks a 28-20 lead en route to a 31-23 victory.

Others at Arkansas recall Petrino less fondly. According to a member of the athletic department staff during Petrino's tenure who spoke on condition of anonymity, Petrino was verbally abusive. “He came into the university and said people just didn’t have a commitment,” says the staffer. “It didn’t matter how many years they had put in.” The staff member said Petrino employed the epithet mother------- so liberally that athletic department members nicknamed him BMFP, for Bobby Mother------- Petrino.

He could be particularly rough on his assistant coaches. Two individuals with connections to the Arkansas program during Petrino’s tenure told SI that they once saw Petrino throw defensive line coach Bobby Allen to the floor. Petrino was incensed that a Razorbacks defensive lineman had thrown an offensive lineman into the legs of another offensive lineman during a practice, risking injury. Petrino denies throwing Allen down. Allen, still with the Arkansas athletic department, declined to comment.

But Petrino’s behavior was trumped by making Arkansas a player in the brutal SEC West. In December 2010 the school rewarded him with a seven-year contract worth $3.56 million annually.

Seventeen months later that deal was terminated for cause after the motorcycle crash near Fayetteville. Petrino was driving the bike with former Arkansas volleyball player Jessica Dorrell, then 25, on the back, but he didn't tell athletic director Jeff Long that she had been with him, nor did he mention her in a press conference two days after the crash. A university investigation found that Petrino had been involved with Dorrell for a “significant” amount of time; had hired her to work in the football office over 158 other candidates; and had made her a gift of $20,000. An emotional Long said Petrino had “engaged in a pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior designed to deceive me and members of the athletic staff both before and after the motorcycle accident.”

At home in Colorado, Jake Plummer heard the news and thought, Aw, Coach. ... In Atlanta, Falcons officials left over from Petrino’s time started referring to him as Easy Rider.

*****

Even in the flames of Petrino’s departure from Arkansas, there was little doubt he would return to the sideline. Western Kentucky threw him the first lifeline, a four-year contract with a base salary of $850,000. He got the Hilltoppers to 8-4, which was slightly better than Willie Taggart’s 7-5. But even that short tenure was not without controversy.

In September, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an investigative story detailing the complicated relationship between athletic trainers and football coaches. Reporter Brad Wolverton wrote that Petrino clashed frequently with trainer Danny Cobble: “Mr. Cobble says the coach also questioned his medical abilities, was impatient with return-to-play times, and pushed back on physicians’ decisions.” Cobble was eventually fired.

Meanwhile, Charlie Strong guided the Cardinals to a 12-1 record in 2013 and a 36-9 rout of Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl. When Strong took the Texas job after the new year, Jurich says he felt blindsided—and was deeply embittered. “There’s one guy who took care of Charlie when he’d been passed over for 27 years, one guy who hired him,” Jurich says. “I never envisioned him leaving. But he earned the right.”

Jurich says his list to replace Strong was seven names deep, and Petrino was on it, with Ramsey’s blessing. Jurich and Petrino had lost contact during the coach’s time at Arkansas, but they had reconnected in the fall of 2012 during a three-hour lunch meeting in Jurich’s suite on the 20-yard line at Papa John’s. Their next meeting, on Jan. 8, under intense pressure with the approach of national signing day, sold Jurich.

There has been scant outcry in Louisville over Petrino’s hiring. Even before he returned, a bedsheet was hung from the campus athletic center, inscribed with the words BRING BACK BOBBY. Many former Cardinals rushed to social media to support Petrino’s hiring. In June, Petrino established the Petrino Family Foundation and pledged more than $1 million for the Kosair Children’s Hospital trauma program, a scholarship program for Louisville students, and the university’s marching band. According to Lynnie Meyer, executive director of the Kosair Children’s Hospital Foundation, Petrino donated $250,000 during his first tenure at Louisville. “I know there have been issues with Coach and his family,” says Meyer. “All I can say is, in my relationship with the Petrino family, they have been people of compassion and integrity.”

Upon his hiring Petrino gathered a recruiting class composed of his own signees and players salvaged from Strong’s efforts. It includes six junior college transfers. It is also ranked No. 40 in the nation by Rivals.com and seventh in the ACC. Petrino’s partial 2015 class, just nine recruits so far, is ranked No. 61. The coach’s ability to conjure victories will instantly be tested. On this matter his record shrieks: just one losing season in nine as a college coach.

*****

Back in the office now, nearly 80 minutes of interviewing have passed. Petrino allows himself to reminisce. “I remember when I first started coaching,” he says, “I was thinking, Boy I wish I knew all this stuff when I was a player.” That was football stuff, back in 1983 with his father, coaching the option. And then at Weber State, coaching an early spread offense, learning that teaching is different from competing. The knowledge required to do the job often comes long after the job is awarded. It wasn’t just X’s and O’s; it was maturity, which Petrino clearly lacked. He says he wasn’t ready: “When I was here and got my first head coaching job, it came at me fast. Over the years I brought things on myself. And then people give you second chances.”

Outside, the big stadium lies quiet. A green field awaits games. Red seats await fans. The scoreboard awaits touchdowns.

Thayer Evans contributed special reporting to this story.

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