It's no surprise that Bobby Petrino is returning to a college sideline less than a year after his scandalous ouster at Arkansas. Petrino may be a complete sleazeball, but he wins football games, which takes precedence over almost everything else on most campuses.
The surprise to me is that so many desperate, higher-profile programs showed such restraint. If you'd asked me in October about Petrino's most likely 2013 destination, I'd have said Kentucky. It almost made too much sense, with Petrino's SEC experience and his ties to the state as a former coach at Louisville. But Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart never seriously considered the disgraced 51 year old. Nor did SEC counterparts Tennessee and Auburn.
Now, Petrino is heading back to Kentucky after all -- to the Sun Belt, not the SEC. On Monday, Western Kentucky tabbed Petrino to replace program savior Willie Taggart, the new coach at USF. And as dirty as it must feel to outside observers, the move makes sense for both parties.
Western Kentucky administrators will have no shortage of explaining to do in the coming days and months. They'll have to rationalize why they hired a man who just eight months ago was fired by Arkansas after it was revealed that he not only had a mistress in the athletic department, but that he personally hired her for a job in the Razorbacks' football program. He lied to his former boss, AD Jeff Long, following the initial news of his motorcycle accident, and he brought untold shame on the university. It was indisputably slimy behavior by a man already viewed as a snake for leaving the Atlanta Falcons less than a season into his tenure by leaving letters in the players' lockers.
But WKU and Petrino will undoubtedly insist that he's a changed man, that he learned his lesson during his season in exile, that he's so thankful for another chance that he's absolutely going to be on his best behavior. Nobody will believe them, but it doesn't matter, because WKU will welcome the unprecedented publicity for its otherwise overlooked program. More importantly, it will eagerly await the anticipated success the Hilltoppers will achieve behind a career 75-26 coach, an offensive mastermind who produced top-10 teams at two different schools.
Meanwhile, Petrino will get the return to the head-coaching ranks he so badly wanted, and he'll do so in a part of the country with which he's already familiar. He inherits a rising program, one that reached its first bowl game this season in just its fourth year as an FBS member. And Petrino will likely have the Hilltoppers contending for the Sun Belt title immediately. More significantly for him, however, is the opportunity to begin rehabilitating his tarnished reputation without nearly the media scrutiny that would have come with an SEC job. He follows in the footsteps of previously disgraced coaches like Mike Price (UTEP) and George O'Leary (UCF) who sought redemption at lower-profile programs.
The difference with this move is no one -- not the school, not the fans, surely not Petrino himself -- expects he'll be there for more than a couple of years. He'll likely win big while getting the necessary distance from the Arkansas scandal, a combination he can parlay into a better job. Western Kentucky knows it's a launching pad (as it was for Taggart), and there's almost no one it could hire that would stay for the long haul. In the short term, it's getting a proven winner.
If all of this makes you want to vomit, then you're living under the fantasy notion that winning with integrity is still a priority in college sports. It is in a few places, but one needs to only follow the recent conference realignment wars to know that ego and/or desperation drives most decisions these days. And it's not like anyone in power is stepping in to stop it.
Consider this: It's better for Western Kentucky that Petrino showed blatant disregard for university protocol and basic ethics at his old job rather than break NCAA rules. In NCAA parlance, Jim Tressel committed unethical conduct for lying on a compliance form and is thus persona non grata for five years due to his show-cause penalty. Petrino, on the other hand, is free to return to coaching with no restrictions. The only possible consequence for Western Kentucky is embarrassment if Petrino gets wrapped up in a similarly unethical scandal.
The Hilltoppers open next season against Kentucky in Nashville and then visit Tennessee on Sept. 7. Both games will cause no shortage of "Petrino returns to the SEC" stories, and the inevitable indignant columns that go with them.
But then, WKU will fall back into obscurity as it plays out its Sun Belt schedule, and Petrino will be temporarily forgotten. That is, unless he goes 10-2, in which case his name will pop up everywhere again next December -- as a candidate for more coaching jobs. And this time there won't be nearly as many reservations as there are administrators and fans who simply want to win.