Commentary

Bobby Petrino fools them again

Updated: January 9, 2014, 11:09 AM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Under former coach Charlie Strong, the Louisville football team's "core values" were out in the open for everyone to see. On wallpaper outside the Cardinals' team meeting room, Strong listed the five things he most expected from his players:

1. Honesty
2. Treat women with respect
3. No drugs
4. No stealing
5. No guns

Anyone have an eraser?

I'm not surprised Bobby Petrino is returning to big-time college football. After the scandalous end to his four-year tenure at Arkansas in April 2012, in which he was fired after wrecking his motorcycle with his mistress on the back and then lying to his boss about it, you knew it was only a matter of time before he was hired by a desperate football program.

[+] EnlargeBobby Petrino
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesBobby Petrino once patrolled the Louisville sideline, guiding the Cardinals to a 41-9 record in his four seasons at the helm.

Petrino has an 83-30 record as a college coach and knows X's and O's as well as anyone. Petrino might be morally bankrupt, but he wins games and sells tickets, which seem to be the only things that really matter in major college athletics anymore.

But I never thought it would be Louisville that hired him. Petrino, 52, will be named the Cardinals' coach for a second time on Thursday, replacing Strong, who left last week for Texas.

Sure, Louisville is heading to the ACC next season and might be trying to salvage the momentum Strong built, but the Cardinals aren't desperate. In fact, they're coming off two of their best seasons in school history. Strong guided them to a 23-3 record during the past two seasons, including a 33-23 victory over Florida in the 2013 Allstate Sugar Bowl. Throw in Louisville's NCAA championship in men's basketball last season and it has been the golden age of Cardinals athletics.

Louisville athletics director Tom Jurich is one of the best in the business, helping the Cardinals build an athletics program that is the envy of schools with far more resources and tradition. That's why it's so surprising that Jurich didn't learn from the past -- or at least ignored his conscience.

Petrino has already burned the Cardinals before, leaving for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons only a few months after he signed a lucrative 10-year contract to stay at Louisville. Given what Strong built, Jurich might have had his choice of up-and-coming coaching candidates. He reportedly interviewed Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris and Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, among others, before somehow settling on Petrino.

Any of the other candidates would have come with far less baggage -- and a lot less road rash -- than Petrino.

But Petrino won big at Louisville the first time, going 41-9 from 2003 to 2006, and Jurich must be convinced he'll do it again. Hopefully, Petrino's second tenure will come without the lying and deception that made him one of the sport's most despised and mistrusted coaches.

During his first stop at Louisville, Petrino notoriously shopped for other jobs, infamously interviewing with Auburn officials at a small Indiana airport in 2003 even though he was still coaching the Cardinals and his former boss, Tommy Tuberville, was still employed at Auburn. Initially, Petrino denied published reports about the clandestine interview, but then admitted it and apologized for going behind Jurich's back.

The next year, Petrino interviewed for the Notre Dame job, and then, just five days after accepting a contract extension from Louisville, interviewed with LSU. In 2005, it was the NFL's Oakland Raiders.

Finally, after signing a 10-year deal with Louisville that would have paid him about $25 million, Petrino left to coach the NFL's Atlanta Falcons in January 2007. The fallout at Louisville was dramatic. Petrino's successor, former Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe, went 15-21 in three seasons. Jurich told Louisville-based reporter Eric Crawford that the Cardinals had to dismiss 21 players for disciplinary reasons after Petrino left.

Of course, Petrino didn't last a full season in the pros, resigning as the Falcons' coach with three games left in the 2007 season to become Arkansas' new coach. Petrino announced his departure by having a typed statement taped to each of the Falcons players' lockers after he bolted out of town.

[+] EnlargeBobby Petrino
AP Photo/Gareth PattersonPetrino's motorcycle accident in 2012 was the beginning of the end for his Arkansas tenure.

Arkansas fans were blinded by Petrino's success, too. It took him only two seasons to produce a winner at Arkansas, guiding the Hogs to a 10-3 record and the Sugar Bowl in 2010, followed by an 11-2 record the next season. Then came that fateful spring day on a rural Arkansas highway when Petrino crashed his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and tried to cover up the fact that his mistress was riding with him. The 25-year-old woman, a former Arkansas volleyball player, was engaged to one of the school's strength and conditioning coaches. Petrino, who is married, even circumvented the state's employment laws by hiring his mistress as an assistant in the football office.

Petrino and the woman exchanged more than 7,000 text messages on his university-issued cell phone -- some of them on game days -- and he gave her $20,000 as a Christmas gift.

After spending the 2012 season in hiding, Petrino re-emerged at Western Kentucky this past season, where he led the Hilltoppers to an 8-4 record. WKU got Petrino on the cheap, hiring him to a four-year contract that paid him about $850,000 annually. The school even included a $1.2 million penalty that Petrino would have to pay if he left before the end of the deal. At the time, WKU athletics director Todd Stewart said, "I'm confident he'll be here awhile. I hope he's here for a long time."

Somehow, Petrino fooled them again, just like he hoodwinked Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long.

Now, Jurich has been blinded by the glorious possibilities of victories and championships again.

What's even harder to believe? That Petrino is actually a changed man.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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