Social media crackled with disbelief on the day word leaked that former University of Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino was in line to become the replacement for Charlie Strong at U of L last January.
Talk-radio hyperventilated. Opinions flew from every direction. Louisville can’t be hiring that two-timer, can it? National columnists powered up their keyboards and took their most vicious shots.
Considering the way Petrino had walked out on Louisville for the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 and then driven his career (and motorcycle) off the road at Arkansas in 2012, outsiders howled that athletic director Tom Jurich had finally fumbled a big decision.
Actually, the decision to bring Petrino back from Western Kentucky was every bit a calculated Jurich move. People who know Jurich know that Petrino was the first option from the moment Strong’s name was linked to Texas.
The reaction in Louisville to Petrino’s return for a job that he didn’t want seven years earlier? That he was getting a deal worth $3.5 million per season with a $10 million buyout?
Primarily long and sustained applause.
“The offense isn’t going to be boring around here any more,” former Louisville running back Michael Bush said on a live microphone in front of 27,500 fans at the Cardinals’ spring game.
In the aftermath of Petrino’s arrival, the demand for U of L football season tickets increased. The waiting list grew. Any complaints within the ambitious fan base disappeared after a few days.
Because Petrino wins football games, and Louisville has become accustomed to winning after ringing up victories in the Sugar and Russell Athletic bowls the last two seasons.
“I don’t think anybody will quarrel with his knowledge,” Jurich says.
Louisville is making its move into the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, and the program needed a head coach who could scheme with Jimbo Fisher and the other big dogs in a more demanding league. “He’s as good as anybody I’ve seen or been around,” says Jurich.
What about it, coach?
Says Petrino, “It’s been great. Every day has been great, for me and my family. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be back.”
The Cardinal fan base adored Petrino when he was the head coach from 2003-06, when his teams would routinely score 40, 50, 60 points — and never trailed Kentucky for one second in four games.
Louisville started 2013 with a victory in the Sugar Bowl, won the men’s basketball NCAA title, finished second in the women’s basketball tournament and sent its baseball team to the College World Series. If any athletic director had the muscle to sell Petrino, it was Jurich.
But there was another reason insiders were not surprised: They knew that Jurich played a critical role in helping Petrino land his initial comeback job at Western Kentucky.
Without a strong endorsement from Jurich, WKU athletic director Todd Stewart would have never hired Petrino only eight months after Arkansas fired him for hiring his mistress on the Razorbacks’ staff and then lying about it.
Petrino was toxic then. Jurich did as much as anybody to help Petrino repair his reputation and career.
Stewart called Jurich to discuss Petrino before WKU hired him as Willie Taggart’s replacement in December 2012. Jurich had every reason to bury Petrino, and why not? Petrino had misled him several times while interviewing for other jobs early in his Louisville career. He flirted with jobs at LSU, Notre Dame, Florida and elsewhere, even though Jurich was the first guy to give Petrino a head coaching opportunity.
Then Petrino bolted for the Falcons less than a week after coaching the Cardinals to an Orange Bowl victory over Wake Forest.
Jurich is first-team all-loyalty. He’s been at Louisville since October 1997, even though several prime-time programs, including Texas, inquired about his interest. Not only was Petrino always in a hurry to get to the next job, but he’d also later walked out on the Falcons in the middle of his first season and then embarrassed Arkansas.
But Jurich did not encourage Stewart to scratch Petrino from his list of WKU coaching candidates. He told him that Petrino deserved a chance — and that he would do excellent work in Bowling Green.
Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 ACC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Petrino and Jurich had repaired their relationship while the coach sat out the 2012 season. He apologized for things that happened at Louisville. He asked Jurich if he would help him mend his career. Jurich told him that the first thing he needed to do was mend his life with his family — his wife, Becky, and their four children.
They had several conversations. By the time WKU called to inquire about Petrino, Jurich was convinced that his former coach was ready for another chance. And he endorsed Petrino for that job.
The contract and the buyout were structured that if Petrino left during the first two seasons, WKU would make money. If it didn’t work out, WKU would only suffer a small PR hit. But it worked — for WKU, for Petrino and for Louisville.
How would the Cardinals benefit?
Because the stories about everything that Petrino did wrong were written during the buildup to his first season at Western Kentucky. He talked about the mistakes he had made and lessons that he had learned.
Becky Petrino came to Bowling Green with him. So did two of their children. Two other Petrino children were already in Louisville, attending U of L. If the family was going to make it again, they were going to make it in Kentucky.
Most of the negative stories would be aired out at Western Kentucky. By the end of his first season, there would be a fresh Petrino narrative. He was the coach who beat Kentucky in his season-opener as well as the guy who won eight games, more than WKU had ever won as an FBS program.
He was the guy grateful for a second chance, a coach who understood this was his last chance to make it right.
“I think the opportunity to get someone who is very seasoned as we head into the ACC (is critical),” Jurich says. “But somebody who is definitely a changed person.
“I think the opportunity to get Bobby Petrino is what sold me. Like I said, if it was the same Bobby Petrino as eight years ago, I wasn’t interested, and I had to be convinced of that.”
“The first mistake I made was leaving Louisville,” Petrino says, and he has said it multiple times. “But now I feel like my family and I have come back home.”
Written by Rick Bozich (@RickBozich) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 ACC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.