Louisville welcomes back Petrino with open arms

By Brian Rickerd Published:

LOUISVILLE — Why, University of Louisville athletics director Tom Jurich was asked Thursday, is there so much angst around Kentucky about the Cardinals’ re-hiring of football coach Bobby Petrino, when there wasn’t so much a year ago when Western Kentucky gave Petrino a chance?

“Because he beat Kentucky,” Jurich said. “Twice.”

Jurich referred to this past season’s 35-26 win by Petrino’s then WKU Hilltoppers over UK, and also to the 4-0 mark Petrino had against the Wildcats when he coached at Louisville from 2003-06.

Jurich has a valid point.

I suspect the reason most Kentucky fans have for criticizing Louisville’s re-hiring Thursday of Petrino for seven years at $3.5 million per, has less to do with concerns about U of L’s institutional integrity than with fears about how this will play out on the football field.

Petrino’s previous Louisville teams didn’t just beat Kentucky, they beat the Wildcats like a drum. And Western’s win over UK this past August was more than a little embarrassing.

I don’t believe Stoops first Kentucky team ever completely recovered from it emotionally.

All that said, I don’t see Petrino’s return to Louisville a right and wrong issue. Jurich claims he’s all about forgiveness, and Petrino insists he’s a changed man.

Like a lot of people, I can look at that with more than a touch of skepticism, but who are any of us to judge?

All we know for sure is that Petrino, 52, is perhaps the most polarizing figure in college football.

On the field, Petrino has long been looked at as a genius, especially when it comes to offense.

He was 41-9 in his four previous seasons as Louisville head coach, after Jurich had hired him from his offensive coordinator position at Auburn, giving Petrino his first shot to be a head coach.

But Petrino’s reign at U of L then was almost constantly haunted by rumors that he was looking to leave for bigger football powers, most notably to Auburn.

Petrino left Louisville in ’06 for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, and left there after 13 games to take the head coaching post at Arkansas.

Petrino, to no one’s surprise, was a big hit in hog land, leading the Razorbacks to a 34-17 record in four seasons, including a national ranking as high as fifth.

But Petrino hit rock bottom in his personal life at Arkansas, being involved in a motorcycle wreck with a passenger who he later publicly admitted was a mistress.

School officials fired Petrino shortly thereafter, leading to a year out of football while he repaired his family life and prayed for another shot at coaching.

Western gave him that shot, and he led the Hilltoppers to an 8-4 record last year and appeared to keep his nose clean.

“I’ve made mistakes,’’ said Petrino Thursday, showing raw emotions that Jurich himself said he didn’t know Petrino was capable of. “I’ve made mistakes both professionally and personally, and it’s something I’m not going to do again.”

Petrino said his first mistake was leaving Louisville the first time.

“I’m hoping the fans and everybody will forgive me for when I left here,” he said. “It’s great to be back home.

“A lot of things have changed,” he added. “I’m different in a lot of ways. I’ve grown personally and professionally. First and foremost, I keep my focus and concentration on my family, and making sure that everything I do has my family in mind.”

Petrino and his wife Becky have four children and two grandchildren.

He said it took “a long time” to heal the wounds with his family.

“It took us a long time to get to the point where we are as a family and husband and wife,” Petrino said. “So it’s been a long process, and like this university talks about an upward trajectory ... that’s what we’re going to do as a family, too.”

Jurich, in fact, said it was a meeting he had in recent days with Becky Petrino that convinced him to bring the coach back, even more than the nine hours he spent with Bobby Petrino.

“Because wives know you better than anybody,” Jurich said. “I wanted to look her in the eye, and she sold me. She said, ‘He’s a changed man.’”

Jurich said the scars between he and Petrino, too, were massive after Petrino left U of L in ’06, but that they healed over the years.

Jurich said Petrino reached out to him after the downfall at Arkansas.

“I’m a big believer in who can come back from adversity,” Jurich said. “Life is real easy when people are patting you on the back. But who can come through adversity? Has anybody been through more adversity than him?”

“I was able to reach out to Tom when I made my mistakes, and he helped me in a number of ways that nobody realizes,” Petrino said.

Jurich said he would not have re-hired the Bobby Petrino he knew nearly a decade ago.

“I told Bobby the coach I had eight years ago is not the coach I want to hire,” Jurich said. “I didn’t like him then. I really didn’t, and I told him that. I didn’t like the way he treated people around the building. I told him, ‘You better be a new guy.’”

Petrino was asked numerous times Thursday what he has to do to win over the skeptics.

“I have to show them,” he said. “There’s always a sign in our locker room that says, ‘It’s a show me world.’ So it’s up to me to show it.”

Petrino said Louisville is a destination job, and he is dead set on retiring here. That could be met with skepticism, too. He certainly isn’t the first coach to say something like that.

Petrino insists he won’t budge if a bigger school comes calling in the near future, like, say, Florida.

But then, in practically the next breath, he said, “Goals change.”

“I’ve learned that you take one day at a time,” Petrino said.

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