Louisville Re-Hiring Bobby Petrino Is a Big Gamble, but It's Worth the Risk

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2014

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Often on his own accord, Bobby Petrino has worn out his welcome at every single stop of his head coaching career, burning the bridges between himself and athletic directors (or professional owners) into charred, ashy flakes.

So thorough is the arson job he incites on each bridge that it never seemed possible for one to be properly reconstructed. It never seemed practical, either.

Until now.

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich sucked up his pride on Thursday, re-hiring Petrino to replace new Texas head coach Charlie Strong:

Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports reported the hiring's imminence on Wednesday, detailing the sordid history between Petrino and Louisville, even before he left to become head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2006:

Petrino was coach of the Cardinals from 2003-06, compiling a 41-9 record. While winning more than 80 percent of his games, including the program's first-ever BCS bowl victory, Petrino also serially shopped for other jobs.

He famously interviewed behind Jurich's back for the Auburn job in 2003—at first denying it, and then admitting that he met with officials from the school while it still was employing Tommy Tuberville. The next year, Petrino interviewed with LSU five days after accepting an extension and pronouncing his loyalty to Louisville. That December he also interviewed with Notre Dame and had conversations with Mississippi about its opening. And a few months after signing a lucrative new deal at Louisville in 2006, he left for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.

In short, every year he would interview for other, better jobs. Every year he would deny interviewing for other, better jobs. Eventually, Louisville signed him to a rich new extension. He immediately left for another, better job.

Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons after (less than) one season to become head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. There, he found success in the SEC between 2008 and 2011 but had to resign after getting into a motorcycle crash alongside his mistress, Jessica Dorrell, a much younger woman whom he hired to be part of the football staff.


But I'm not here to defend Petrino as a human being. As much as one can tell without actually meeting face-to-face, he seems like a vile one. He lies and he schemes and he cheats. He might not only care about himself, but he certainly cares disproportionately in favor of his own interest.

He also wins football games:

Bobby Petrino College Head Coaching Career
TeamBefore PetrinoWith Petrino
Western Kentucky7-68-4
Source: Sports-Reference.com

When Petrino takes over a team—even a previously good team—he quickly gets it over the hump and onto the next level. The last two seasons, Louisville has been far better than a "good" team. It has been a great one.

How high does the next level go?

That shouldn't be all that matters, and it isn't. But it certainly matters a lot. This is the seedy world of major college football, after all, not the Emerald City of Oz or some overly righteous, Nick Jr. fantasyland like "Lazy Town." Hands sometimes need to get dirty; sacrifices need to be made.

Now more than ever, with the Cardinals about to join the ACC in the midst of major turnover, fielding a competitive team must be paramount.

Jan 6, 2014; Austin, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns president Bill Powers (left) welcomes head football coach Charlie Strong (center) at a press conference in the Centennial Room of Belmont Hall at Texas-Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA T
Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Ideally, you could find a winner who's also a decent human being. Ideally, had you already found that person, he wouldn't leave your employ and accept the head coaching job at Texas. Ideally, you wouldn't have to replace a program-changing coach and quarterback before the biggest season in program history.

The world is not an ideal place.

Petrino is a Hail Mary, but he's a chance worth taking. There's risk involved and beef to squash, but if everything works out, it could work out in a big way.

On football acumen and football acumen alone, he might be the best offensive mind on the market—if not the country. And he comes at a way cheaper price than, say, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris would have fetched.

By re-hiring Petrino, Jurich is banking on a new-and-improved version of the head coach, someone who was humbled by the affairs he left at Arkansas. He can't just be in it for the short term, with the goal of restoring his brand or again coaching in the SEC.

As noted by Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated, doing so would cripple the program:

Louisville can't afford for that to happen.

After Petrino left the first time, Jurich told Eric Crawford of WDRB, "We had to clear out a lot of discipline issues. 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."

"We want to do things the right way." 

Some might now call Jurich a hypocrite. Hiring Petrino back to the scene of the crime, especially after his subsequent transgressions, hardly seems like wanting to "do things the right way." But maybe his confidence can forge a new side of the head coach, can force Petrino's heart to grow three sizes.

It all comes back to the opening lines of "Forgiveness" by Ella A. Giles:

Forgiveness is the fragrance, rare and sweet,
That flowers yield when trampled on by feet.

Petrino trampled on the Louisville program seven years ago, but with the power of forgiveness, Jurich has sprinkled his feet with a sweet, infectious fragrance. He's agreed to let bygones be bygones and promoted Petrino from the Sun Belt to the ACC. 

His stock still poison to power-conference programs, Petrino needed someone to stick out his neck and offer a lifeline. That it came from the least likely of places—that one of the bridges he burned has been rebuilt—is something he cannot take for granted.

Petrino has earned another chance, unthinkably, on the strength of his athletic director's gamble. It's time for him to pay things forward, put a program ahead of himself, stick his roots in the ground and finally settle down.

"Bobby's convinced me he's a changed man," Jurich said on Thursday, according to Adam Himmelsbach of The Louisville Courier-Journal. If Jurich is getting played, once again, which is entirely possible, the joke might be on him. But with a laughably enormous $10 million buyout to Petrino's name, it's hard to imagine him bolting.

And if that's the case, the joke might be on the rest of the ACC.


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