Other than winning championships, big-time college sports coaches have no greater responsibility to their fan bases than winning rivalry games.
To survive in our hyper-partisan sports culture, a coach needs to win their share — and preferably more than their share — of games against the team their fan base most hates (in a sports context).
Which brings us to Saturday’s renewal of the Governor’s Cup football grudge match between Kentucky and Louisville on Saturday at high noon in Commonwealth Stadium.
Mark Stoops and Bobby Petrino both have even more at stake than normal in our state’s marquee football rivalry.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
For Stoops, the significance of leading Kentucky to its first win over Louisville since 2010 is self-evident.
UK enters the contest 5-6 for a second straight season. Simply put, how we perceive Stoops’ third season as Kentucky head coach will be determined by Saturday’s outcome.
If the Cats win, they will be bowl-eligible for the first time in Stoops’ tenure. A sixth win would represent improvement over last year’s 5-7 record.
Even more importantly, a Kentucky victory over Louisville would mean the coaching dysfunction that cost the Cats the Vanderbilt game did not end up defining the UK season or knocking the Wildcats players out of a bowl trip.
Louisville and Petrino, already bowl eligible at 6-5, do not have that much at stake Saturday.
Yet, for different reasons, the Cards head man really needs to beat the Cats.
When U of L Athletics Director Tom Jurich ignored a barrage of national criticism and brought Petrino — with his history of frantic job seeking, public mendacity and motorcycle mishaps — back to Louisville for a second go-round as Cardinals coach, it was perceived by many, certainly by me, as a win-at-all-costs hire.
Louisville backers point out that Kentucky made a similar kind of hire when it brought John Calipari in as its men’s basketball coach in 2009 at a time when the Memphis program was under NCAA investigation. At least Calipari has subsequently won and won big.
One game from the end of the second season of Petrino 2.0, Louisville stands 15-9. That’s not horrible, but is 15-9 really worth all the bad publicity that came from rehiring Petrino?
In 2014, Petrino inherited a U of L program that had gone 23-3 in the prior two seasons under Charlie Strong. He took over a roster that would see 10 players chosen in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Against a much stiffer schedule created by Louisville’s admission to the ACC, Petrino went 9-4 in 2014.
This year, the Cardinals opened with three straight losses but have rebounded to win six of their last eight. However, they’ve beaten only one FBS team, North Carolina State (7-4), with a winning record.
It was a different story in Petrino’s first go-round as U of L head man (2003-07). Back in the Conference-USA and Big East days, Bobby P. won big (41-9). His teams turned scoreboards into light shows, scoring 40 points or more in 31 of his 50 games.
During Petrino 2.0, U of L has so far scored 40 points or more in only four of 24 games — and two of those came against FCS foes.
Almost two full years in, Petrino still hasn’t settled on a starting quarterback. This week’s Louisville depth chart lists true freshman Lamar Jackson OR ex-Lexington Catholic standout Kyle Bolin, the star of last year’s U of L-UK game, as the first string QB.
But there was one other thing that made Petrino’s first stint at Louisville a certifiable hit: His total domination of Kentucky.
Petrino 1.0 went 4-0 against UK, and only one of those games (a 31-24 win in Lexington in 2005) was even close.
Though Petrino lost to Kentucky as Arkansas head man in 2008, since coming back to the commonwealth to coach in 2013, he’s had the whammy on Stoops.
As Western Kentucky coach, Petrino beat UK and Stoops 35-26 in the 2013 season opener. As U of L head man, Petrino took the measure of Stoops and the Cats again, 44-40, in last season’s wild-and-wooly season finale.
Still, overall, Petrino 2.0 has so far not won as much as he did the first time around at Louisville. His offenses have not been as productive or entertaining so far, either.
Which is why the last thing Bobby P. needs is to see his hold over the team U of L fans most want to beat slip away now.
Louisville at Kentucky
Noon (SEC Network)