LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bobby Petrino was simply too good at what he does best to remain a college football outcast for long.
Question his honesty. Question his integrity. Question his loyalty. Question whether he has changed his ways. The reality is only the people closest to Petrino are the ones who are truly owed an answer to the question of whether he is a better person now.
This is the reason he’s gone so quickly from outcast to coach of the year candidate: “Bobby’s always been an outstanding football coach,” Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a question about his football coaching ability.”
Four and a half years after being fired by Long at Arkansas, Petrino is rising again. His Louisville team is No. 3 in the country heading into a showdown at No. 5 Clemson and his quarterback has gone from three-star prospect to Heisman Trophy front-runner in little more than one season of college football.
The infamous motorcycle accident and scandal that cost Petrino his job at Arkansas could end up being the backstory on the way to a national championship.
“I thought he could take it to another level,” Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “But he has rounded himself out as a fantastic human being this time around. It’s just great to watch. You can see he’s at peace.”
Jurich was one of the people who needed convincing about Petrino the person. Jurich has hired Petrino twice and both times he has guided Louisville to national prominence.
The relationship between Petrino and Jurich was far from perfect the first time around. Petrino’s penchant for eyeing other jobs in a less-than-up-front way during his first stint coaching the Cardinals annoyed Jurich. Still, Petrino reached out to his former boss after being fired by Arkansas for lying to Long about the motorcycle accident that involved Petrino and his mistress, who also was an Arkansas football staffer.
Jurich suggested to Petrino that he own up to the embarrassing judgment lapse, and show remorse if he hoped to ever coach again. Petrino was out of college football for one season, though he returned on a much smaller stage.
“I looked at it from the standpoint … when will Western Kentucky ever have a chance to hire somebody in the prime of their career with the resume that he has?” WKU athletic director Todd Stewart said. “Somebody that’s had top 10 team finishes. Been to the Orange Bowl. Been to the Sugar Bowl and the Cotton Bowl. I felt from a football standpoint, we’d never be able to hire somebody with a resume like that.”
Petrino led the Hilltoppers to an 8-4 mark in 2013, but the prospect of Petrino returning to Louisville didn’t enter Jurich’s mind until coach Charlie Strong abruptly left for Texas in January 2014. The surprising turn of events ended several days later with Petrino getting a second chance with the program he led to a 41-9 record from 2003-06.
Jurich knew what he was getting in a coach and was comfortable with the man.
“Did I expect to beat (then-No. 2) Florida State 63-20? No, I sure didn’t,” Jurich said. “But I expected us to be very competitive.”
Louisville’s statement victory on Sept. 17 against the Seminoles has Petrino and the Cardinals (4-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) poised to take another big leap Saturday night at Clemson (4-0, 1-0). A second top five win in three weeks puts the Cardinals on track toward winning the Atlantic Division and firmly in the national title discussion.
This spring, Jurich gave Petrino a seven-year contract extension that pays a base annual salary of $3.875 million. The way this season is going, Petrino can expect another raise. And the speculation has already begun about whether that will be at Louisville or LSU.
Petrino pledged his allegiance to Louisville this week the way coaches do when asked about other jobs.
“I did believe our goal was to win a national championship. We’ve been saying that since we got here. It was that way when I was here before,” Petrino said.
Some may never forgive Petrino for his indiscretions, no matter how many games he wins — and not just how it ended at Arkansas. He ended up leaving Louisville for the NFL in 2007, but quit during his first season with the Atlanta Falcons struggling at 3-10 to take the Razorbacks job.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” said former Louisville offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, now at Illinois. “As long as they look them in the eye, accept responsibility and don’t let them happen again, you are supposed to be forgiven. … In team meetings, when he’s talking about making mistakes and coming back from them, he can use himself as an example.”
Stewart said Petrino was demanding of coaches, players and staff, but there were no complaints about his behavior at WKU.
Petrino kept Stewart in the loop as he went through the interview process with Louisville. The AD hoped to have Petrino for more than one season but understood the reality.
“I knew that he was going to have other opportunities,” Stewart said.
Louisville is 21-9 under Petrino, success that another former Cardinals coach, John L. Smith, expected.
The difference this time is Petrino seems to be enjoying it more. Jurich and Smith credit Petrino’s love of family for allowing him to savor this second chapter of success.
The father of four — including Nick, the Cardinals’ quarterbacks coach — and grandfather of three talked about celebrating the FSU win with family. He’s an active participant in the foundation he and his wife, Becky, run and interacts with fans, who seem to have forgiven him.
“He’s letting his true personality show,” said Smith, who was Petrino’s boss at Louisville in 1998 and his assistant and interim successor at Arkansas. “He has a gruff exterior, not that he wants to show it, but he’s showing his other side now. He’s being himself.”
College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo in New York and AP Sports Writer Kurt Voigt in Arkansas contributed to this report.