LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Disingenuous Drifter has wandered back home.
A changed man? So they say. In the belief that fallible humans – that is to say, all of us – can learn and grow from their greatest failings, I hope it's true.
Bobby Petrino presented himself in a different manner Thursday, at least. There were glimpses of emotion from an infamous stoic, and plenty of contrite words.
Believable? Not yet.
For now, those words are cheap. It will be all about actions for Bobby Petrino. He's tasked with laying one brick of credibility on top of another in what will be a long and painstaking effort to rebuild his demolished reputation.
Petrino has been given a second chance at his first place of head-coaching employment, Louisville. Last time he was here, he treated that job the way muddy shoes treat a welcome mat. Same with the next two jobs: the Atlanta Falcons and Arkansas Razorbacks.
He was disdainful and disrespectful to his employers – and, yes, dishonest, too. That's why I labeled Petrino the Disingenuous Drifter back in 2007, in one of the meanest columns I've written. And that was before Arkansas fired him for duplicitous behavior in 2012.
The Bobby Petrino who drifted back into Louisville Thursday appears more desperate than disingenuous, more humbled than haughty. When a football lifer spends a season unemployed and then is snubbed for several jobs he was overqualified for, landing at Western Kentucky for a year, the tables are turned and it's up to him to deal with it.
He referred several times to this city and university as "home" – and that's often the place we turn when we've made a mess of things. We come home seeking forgiveness, reassurance and a fresh start.
Athletic director Tom Jurich was waiting for him, welcoming the prodigal play caller with a generous contract (seven years, $3.5 million per) and an appropriately huge buyout ($10 million over the first four years, then decreasing from there). Jurich said he believes the serial job-hopper is a changed man, but the size of the buyout puts a hard line behind blind faith.
Louisville comes across as desperate as its new coach. At a time when the athletic program is at its all-time apex – membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference starting this summer, a shiny national championship in basketball, the best two-year run in school history in football, unprecedented non-revenue success – it has embraced a coach viewed as radioactive by much of the country. Jurich has built a stellar reputation over 16-plus years at Louisville, and now he has staked it to one of the most unreliable figures in recent college football history.
"Bobby and I have a lot of history together," Jurich said in a very candid press conference. "A lot of it's great, a lot of it's not great. … I told him, 'The coach I had eight years ago is not the coach I want to hire.'
"He'd better be a new guy. … Or I'm accountable."
Jurich is accountable for a football program that is starting to resemble a halfway house: in addition to Petrino, it has an assistant coach currently under an NCAA show-cause penalty for major violations (Clint Hurtt) and a running back who was bounced out of Auburn and Arkansas State for bad behavior (Michael Dyer). Louisville has stretched its reputation very thin in an effort to make this ACC move a big success.
In keeping with the nature of the Petrino announcement, the school abandoned the usual rhetorical pretense.
When universities make high-profile coaching hires, administrators love to fill the air with flowery descriptions of the exalted human beings they are bringing in. "Integrity" and "character" are the go-to words to describe the new guy, who in reality is being hired with one overriding expectation: win. The Second Coming of Gandhi talk is simply a vehicle for perpetuating the myth that major college sports is about something other than competition and revenue.
In introducing Bobby Petrino Thursday, Louisville officials skipped all that. President James Ramsey said the hire was part of continuing the school's "upward trajectory." Jurich and Petrino made no efforts to dance around past problems.
"I've made mistakes, both professionally and personally," Petrino said, with his entire family seated a few feet away. "And it's something I'm not going to do again. The first mistake I ever made was leaving the University of Louisville. … This is my destination job."
Last time around, of course, this was a departure job. During his first season with the Cardinals, in 2003, Petrino infamously interviewed behind Louisville's back for an Auburn job that wasn't even open, then denied the interview. The next year he interviewed with LSU five days after signing a contract extension, also interviewed with Notre Dame and had some discussions with Mississippi. In 2005 he interviewed with the Oakland Raiders, and in '06, five months after signing a 10-year contract, he left Louisville for the Falcons.
But he also was 41-9 at Louisville, overseeing an explosive and entertaining offense. Petrino's fallible soul was accompanied by a beautiful football mind – and that's why Cardinals fans are largely thrilled to have him back. Just win, Bobby. To help provide a fresh media start for their baggage-ridden coach, Louisville offered me a sitdown interview with Petrino after his introductory press conference. Given my criticisms of him in the past, I'm sure he wasn't overjoyed – but he did it anyway and was gracious and professional throughout. What follows is our complete, on-record Q&A:
Forde: How long do you think it will take to convince people you have sincere respect for the job here?
Petrino: "I think it's going to be a process, I don't think there's any question about that. I think it's going to take where somebody [another school] calls here next year and I come right out and say, 'I absolutely have no interest, I'm not interested in going anywhere.' I think they want to believe it now, but until that happens? I think there will always be a little bit of doubt."
Forde: And four years from now, you think you'll say the same thing?
Petrino: "Yeah, I can. I think when you get to the point in your career where I'm at, and you do get this opportunity, it's what I want. But, again, I think it's going to be when four years come up, then everybody is really going to understand what I'm saying."
Forde: Listening to some people talk, I've heard the over/under put on your tenure at 4½ years. How long do you see yourself being here?
Petrino: "I think I have at least 12-15 good years left to coach. That's what I want to do. I think we have the ability right now to win a national championship here. That's always been Tom's goal, and that was my goal when I was here. I'm not sure everyone believed it then, but the players did, and they went out to practice and committed to doing it. We came up just a little bit short, but that's what I want to get done."
Forde: You were asked a question about the shape of the program when you left. On the field, obviously, it was in great shape. But off the field there was talk about (players') marijuana usage and academic performance. Do you think there were shortcomings in those areas, and, if so, how do you address them this time?
Petrino: "There's always problems. I'm not sure those were the areas where we had problems, and I do think the transition and change [to Steve Kragthorpe's coaching staff] is hard on young men. That's my biggest challenge right now, is to make sure we have everybody go to class and not miss any class these first two weeks. But I'm going to do the best I can academically. I'm so excited about the resources we have now, the academic support that's in place. I want to get down there and meet those people."
Forde: Do you think you've improved, as a coach, in those areas?
Petrino: "You know, my APR [Academic Progress Rate] has always been good. We had one year where we didn't meet the standards, but we always made it here. I'm proud of all the players I've coached who are graduates here. They've raised the bar [in terms of academic standards] here, so I've got to work as hard as I possibly can to help maintain that level."
Forde: Some people wrote some pretty negative things about you, myself included. Were those unfair, or did you learn anything from them, or how did you take the external criticism?
Petrino: "First of all, it's hard personally when you read something like that. I understand some of them. I think some of them were fair and some that I felt weren't. Everyone has their opinion. I know I've made mistakes professionally, personally. But I also understand that people have their job to do, too. I think that's something that drives sports and athletics, is everyone has their opinion."
Forde: Tom Jurich said he hit you pretty hard with some questions when you first talked. How was that?
Petrino: "It was about how I'm doing personally. It didn't have anything to do with football. It was, 'Have you changed?' "
Forde: Is there anything about how you've changed you can tangibly point to?
Petrino: "There was a lot of things with our family. We went to counseling, we learned a lot about each other. We learned a lot about things we weren't doing together or sharing together. There was a whole bunch of that."
Forde: From that standpoint, was the year off from football a good thing?
Petrino: "It was. It was hard, you don't get to do something you love. It was the first time in my life I wasn't on the football field since I was 8 years old, standing on the sideline at my dad's games, charting plays. But we did different things – we got to travel, watch [daughter] Katie golf [for the Louisville golf team]. We worked at it."
Forde: Are you as good a football coach as you were before?
Petrino: "I think I'm better. I don't think there's any question, in my mind, that I've improved and gotten better. One thing I've always believed in is staying on top of everything that's new and trying to be one of the innovators. I know I'm a much better coach than when I first got this job. I truly believe I do a better job of coaching the person, not just the player, and understanding the obstacles they face outside of football."
Forde: I know your coaching style is very intense – do you draw a line between keeping that intensity and being pleasant, for lack of a better term?
Petrino: "I'm going to coach the way I know how to coach. All the guys who ever helped me and mentored me said you have to coach to your personality. But I think I'm doing a better job of building relationships outside of football with the players, letting them in a little bit. One of the things I always admired about John L. [Smith, who was Petrino's boss at Louisville earlier this century], is that he had a big heart and was always opened up and let everybody in, where I was more guarded. I didn't let people get to know me. I've realized that."
Forde: When did you realize that?
Petrino: "I think I realized that when I brought John L. back with me [as an assistant at Arkansas]."
Forde: What was driving you to look for job after job?
Petrino: "You don't really look for job after job. The way it goes, they come looking for you. What I didn't do and I should have done a couple of times is simply come out and say, 'No, I'm not interested.' You saw some of that this year – you've got a couple teams playing for the national championship and the head coaches are being talked about for jobs. You say, 'I'm just focused on playing this game and getting our players ready,' and sometimes that's not good enough for some people. So you get put in a tough spot sometimes. And some guys get a pass on it and some guys don't. When the Auburn deal happened? I didn't deserve a pass. That's where it became that I was looking for jobs, but it was really that people were contacting me. Once I made that mistake, I understand [where the criticism came from]."
Forde: When Tom first reached back out to you after things went wrong at Arkansas, were you surprised?
Petrino: "Actually I reached out to him. I gave him a call and asked if I could meet with him and he would help me. He said yes, and I actually drove up here [from Arkansas] and had the opportunity to talk to him about what happened and where to go from here. The No. 1 thing Tom said is, 'First thing, you have to get right with your family.' I just called him out of the blue, think I left him a message and he returned my call."
The rest is homecoming history. But the future must be a significant break from the past for Bobby Petrino, and he has to prove it with deeds that back up his words.