Mark Story: In turning (back) to Petrino, U of L reveals a surprising insecurity

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 9, 2014 

— Here's what I don't get about Louisville and the restoration of Bobby Petrino.

U of L is coming off one of the historically great athletic years for any school ever. Its football program is 23-3 over the past two seasons, with bowl wins over Florida and Miami (Fla.). Next year, Louisville joins the Atlantic Coast Conference, a move that secures the Cardinals a place in the top tier of major college sports.

If ever a school seeking a new head football coach was operating from a position of strength, it was U of L. Yet bringing back Petrino, an unusually gifted football mind who carries more baggage than Delta Airlines, feels to me like a move born of insecurity.

If the Louisville football job is as good as it claims — and U of L Athletics Director Tom Jurich said Thursday he thinks it's "a top-10 job in America" — shouldn't the Cardinals have been able to hire a coach capable of producing high-level results minus Petrino's history of frantic job-seeking, public mendacity and motorcycle mishaps?

For the second time in 12 years, Louisville introduced Petrino, now 52, as its new head football coach Thursday in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Not two full years since Petrino's coaching career seemed in ruins after his dismissal at Arkansas over the ramifications from a sex scandal, he is again a head coach in one of college football's five "major" conferences.

Even Petrino seemed stunned by his quick return to good fortune.

After Arkansas, "I didn't know if I would ever get the opportunity (to coach at a high level) again," the coach said.

Other than hiring Rick Pitino off the rebound from his failure with the Boston Celtics, Jurich has built his considerable reputation with an uncanny ability to tap up-and-coming coaching talent. Jeff Walz (women's basketball), Dan McDonnell (baseball) and football coaches Charlie Strong and Petrino 1.0 have all led U of L to enormous success after Jurich gave them their first head coaching jobs.

I asked the Louisville AD why he didn't opt for a similar candidate this time rather than a coach with, let's say, an unusually complicated past?

"First of all, (Petrino represented) the opportunity to get somebody very seasoned as we head into the ACC," Jurich said. "Somebody who is definitely a changed person. And I don't think anybody would ever quarrel with his knowledge of the game. Ever. He's as good as anybody I've ever been around."

Not shockingly, the idea of a "New Petrino" was the dominant theme of the coach's second U of L introductory news conference. Jurich framed the decision to "bring Bobby back" about as cleverly as possible.

First, the Louisville AD said the person who really sold him on rehiring Petrino was the coach's wife, Becky. "(Petrino) pretty much told me they were doing great, but I wanted to hear it from her," Jurich said. "I wanted to look her in the eye. And she sold me. She sold me that there's a 'new Bobby Petrino.'"

Subtext for anyone offended by Petrino's alleged affair with a much younger former Arkansas volleyball player: 'Hey, his wife has forgiven him. Why can't you?'

Next up, Jurich said he started what became a more than eight-hour interview with the coach for Charlie Strong's old job by letting Petrino have it over his behavior in his first stint (2003-06) as Louisville head man.

Back then, Bobby P. made clandestine flirtations with other coaching jobs a constant part of the Louisville football experience. There was the secret meeting with Auburn behind Jurich's back. The dalliance with LSU only months after signing a 10-year contract extension with U of L.

That does not take into account what was, by all accounts, Petrino's "jerk-like" treatment of Louisville support staff.

"I didn't like him. I really didn't," Jurich said of Petrino back then. "And I told him that. I told him I did not want the coach I had eight years ago. I want the 'new Bobby Petrino.'"

Subtext for anyone offended by Petrino's long history of public dishonesty: 'Hey, nobody has been misled by Bobby Petrino more often than Tom Jurich. If I've forgiven him, why can't you?'"

As a coach, there's no question about Petrino's gifts, especially as an offensive strategist. In his first stint at Louisville, he went 41-9, and his teams scored 40 points or more in 31 of the coach's 50 games. Before he self-destructed at Arkansas, Petrino went 34-17 (2008-11), although he was 17-15 in SEC games.

(It's interesting that Petrino's year of being parked last season at Western Kentucky, where he inherited a veteran-laden 7-6 team and went "only" 8-4, is the least impressive part of his college head coaching résumé).

In the big picture, the decision to bring back Petrino — plus U of L holding on to football assistant Clint Hurtt even after the NCAA sanctioned him for his role in the Miami/Nevin Shapiro recruiting scandal — leaves Louisville more than open to questions about whether its thirst for sports success has become a bit too acute.

On the Sports Illustrated website, Stewart Mandel wrote, "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."

At a time when U of L had so much going for it, I can't help thinking it should have been able to find a coach who could produce Petrino-like results without bringing Petrino-like baggage.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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