Thin line between love and hate in Louisville

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Bobby Petrino jogged off the field with a smile on his face and his teenage son, Nick, by his side. He didn't need a police escort to get off the field alive, which goes to show what winning can do for you.

Petrino had come out on the plus side of a Liberty Bowl shootout that lived up to its considerable hype, laden with 84 points, 848 yards total offense and eight lead changes. As he headed for the stadium tunnel, you could hear Louisville fans' conflicted emotions toward their football coach.

Many cheered the man who delivered the best season in school history, an 11-1 masterpiece that was capped by a 44-40 triumph over unbeaten Boise State Friday night. Many other fans vigorously booed the man who has chased every job but street sweeper during his two seasons in Louisville.

They love him. They hate him. They can't live with him, can't live without him and can't trust anything that comes out of his mouth. It's quite the dilemma when your coach is a genius and a weasel at the same time.

For today, Petrino remains Louisville's football coach. What happens tomorrow or the next day, nobody knows for sure.

He might be the next coach at LSU, which would require a new spelling of his last name: Petrineaux. He might remain at Louisville, which would require a Kevlar vest and some serious sucking up to the offended masses. He might be out of the running at both places, which would be just desserts.

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich gave mixed signals after the game on the subject of his football coach. When asked whether Petrino was welcome back in 2005 at Louisville, Jurich nodded his head and said, "We'll talk about some things privately, him and I." When asked again, Jurich laughed and said, "Can I defer on that? I want to spend some time with him -- if I get a chance. I hope I do get that chance."

Jurich then added, "Whatever happens, we will go upward. I guarantee that."

Jurich did get a call Friday morning from Russ Campbell, Petrino's agent. Campbell wanted to stress that LSU had not made an offer to the coach and that he'd had no contact with the school since their meeting Sunday in Nashville.

As for Petrino, he continued evasive maneuvers postgame.

"I'm the head coach of the University of Louisville and I'm really proud to be that," he said.

When asked if he would still be the U of L coach next season he said, "We certainly hope so."

Shortly thereafter he was out of the interview tent and in a golf cart for the ride back to the Louisville locker room. A cluster of Cards fans offered congratulations and a few tepid recruiting pitches.

"Come back next year, baby!" one fan said.

"Louisville's a great home," another added.

During the game's first 35 minutes, they all wanted to hang their head coach. The Cards committed a season-high four turnovers in that time and had two punting-game debacles, including Petrino's foolish fake-punt call from their own 19. Louisville was down 34-21, and the fans likely suspected that Petrino had spent the entire week packing for Baton Rouge instead of game planning.

"We weren't ourselves," quarterback and Liberty Bowl MVP Stefan LeFors said.

In fact, it was the utterly overshadowed Louisville defense that held the fort while the offense and special teams bumbled. The Cards' D was continually stuck in horrible field position, yet kept the game from getting out of control.

"They won the game for us," LeFors said.

"There's been some games where the offense had to bail us out," linebacker Brandon Johnson said. "It's good to return the favor."

Yet with the game on the line, the Cardinals showed why they were the nation's No. 1 offense, and why Petrino has been so hotly pursued this season. Their final four possessions went touchdown-touchdown-touchdown-field goal, on drives of 81, 45, 78 and 51 yards.

Running backs Michael Bush and Eric Shelton hammered the smaller Broncos. LeFors -- who narrowly missed setting NCAA season records for completion percentage and quarterback rating -- completed nine of his final 10 passes and ran effectively. It takes an offensive machine to be minus-four turnover ratio and still score 44 points.

Still, Boise State had a shot at the end. Needing a touchdown, the Broncos drove to the Louisville 30 and barely got off a final snap and throw into the end zone as the clock expired.

In a poetic final twist, Jared Zabransky's pass landed in the arms of Louisville safety Kerry Rhodes. It was Rhodes who endured the $15 million dropped interception against Miami, a play that probably would have secured an undefeated Louisville season and BCS bowl bid.

"He's been through a lot," LeFors said of fellow senior Rhodes. "He shouldered the whole thing at Miami and it wasn't his fault."

LeFors and the other upperclassmen remember how their team collapsed two years ago in the GMAC Bowl, when word broke during the game that coach John L. Smith was leaving for Michigan State. That's why he pulled aside a few teammates during this week and encouraged them to keep their minds in the game and out of the rumor mill.

"We were able to keep the team together," he said. "We put all that other talk in the back of our minds. ... I wanted to say, 'Let's do this for ourselves. We've earned this and we can't let anything distract us from getting it.' "

They got the bowl victory they wanted, and the triumphant end to a great season. The highest poll ranking in school history is assured. The Big East beckons for the Cardinals next year.

The only question still hanging out there is whether or not Bobby Petrino goes with them.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.