GREENSBORO, N.C. – Even the longest journeys begin with a single step.
For Bobby Petrino, many of the most significant steps he has made in the process of rebuilding his marriage, family life and reputation have come on the golf course, pushing his daughter's cart ahead of him.
For the third straight summer, Petrino has caddied for his daughter, Katie – a part-time gig he is quite proud of. In the past couple of months, the Louisville football coach was on the bag at a tournament in Pennsylvania; the Kentucky Women's Open in Lexington, Ky., and the U.S. Amateur qualifier in Dayton, Ohio.
"I'm not a real good caddy," a smiling Petrino said here Monday at Atlantic Coast Conference media days. "I push the bag and try to listen and only speak if I'm asked a question. There are three things a caddy is supposed to do: show up, keep up, shut up."
Last summer, he caddied even more events. And in the tumultuous year before that, when he was out of coaching for the first time since 1982, Bobby and his wife, Becky, spent a therapeutic summer traveling to every tourney Katie played in.
"They definitely grew a lot closer that summer," Katie told Yahoo Sports.
For a football obsessive, taking time away from an all-consuming job does not come easily. But caddying for Katie is an avocation that means a lot to a man who put his family and himself through an embarrassing public ordeal when he was fired at Arkansas for having an affair with a woman he hired onto his staff. It has been a means to connect with one of his four children, and to show the entire family – and everyone else – that he's not the same guy who wrecked a Harley and derailed his career on one disastrous April day in 2012.
Rebuilding that trust will take time. But those closest to Petrino believe what they are seeing so far.
A tweet from Katie on June 15 read: "Happy Father's Day to @CoachPetrinoUL !! Thank you for always supporting me! #loveyou !!" It included a picture of Bobby walking a course with Katie – who will be a fifth-year senior golfer at Louisville this year – pushing her bag.
Though Bobby downplayed his work as her caddy – "My daughter has outgrown my knowledge of golf" – Katie credits him with being the driving force behind her game. She said he was her first teacher when she picked up a club at age 9, when the Petrinos lived in Jacksonville and Bobby was the offensive coordinator for the Jaguars.
"He pretty much taught me the game," Katie said. "I'd say he's still my main coach."
These days, his golf coaching is more mental than technical. During a tournament, Bobby will engage in soothing small-talk with Katie about everything but golf.
"It keeps me calm," she said.
It does not come naturally for a man who has never been emotive or expansive.
"I tried to get out of my comfort zone and talk a lot," Bobby said. "I think she enjoys me walking around with her, having someone to talk to. It's hard because golf is a complete individual game, you don't have teammates and only one person wins. … I try to help her relax a little bit."
It is one part of Petrino's efforts to be seen as more than a cold-blooded achievatron whose identity centered on winning football games and drawing up pretty offensive plays.
Last month he started the Petrino Family Foundation and made a $1 million gift that will go to Kosair Children's Hospital, a scholarship for Louisville students and the school's marching band – and the foundation is being run by daughter Kelsey. Petrino has been more of a team player within the Cardinals athletic department, attending several baseball games during the school's run to the College World Series. And Monday he talked about becoming more attentive to his players beyond the football field, saying he related some of his personal travails to the team during meetings.
"One of the things I'm going to work hard on is coaching the person as well as the player," he said. "It's something I wonder about, whether I paid that much attention to it [in previous years]."
Petrino wasn't overly attentive to the feelings of Louisville fans during his first stay, either. They loved his offense but hated his attitude toward the school.
He went 41-9 in four seasons from 2003-06, but also serially flirted with other jobs before finally leaving for the Atlanta Falcons. It took a lot of forgive-and-forget from athletic director Tom Jurich to extend the offer of a second tenure at the school. Although the Louisville fans are generally giddy at the return of an offensive mastermind with a glittering win-loss record, they will also wait and see whether he'll burn Jurich a second time if another offer comes around. A $10 million buyout is one powerful disincentive to leave, but will it be accompanied by sincere loyalty from the coach?
"I need prove to myself and everyone else, on a daily basis, that this is the right decision [by Louisville]," Petrino said.
More important than proving himself to Louisville fans, Bobby Petrino is trying to prove himself to his family. The golf course walks with his daughter have been vital steps in that process.