Petrino Has It All to Prove

New University of Louisville Football Coach Bobby Petrino speaking at the press conference that welcomed him back to Louisville.

New University of Louisville Football Coach Bobby Petrino speaking at the press conference that welcomed him back to Louisville.

The Card Chronicle

Louisville’s new head football coach was destined to be the most-spoken name in the city over the past week. The fact that said coach wound up being Bobby Petrino made him one of the most spoken names in the country.

The immediate response to shocking news is typically negative, and as such, the immediate aftermath of the Petrino hire mostly centered around the potential risks in bringing the embattled coach back. Reason always tends to set in once the dust has settled, and with the cloud of panic now moving out from over the Ohio River, the reasons why this move was made are becoming more and more apparent.

For starters, Louisville is in a place right now where it has to keep momentum rolling, and Petrino was the only candidate with evidence to back up a claim that he’ll be able to make that happen.

The turnaround job that Charlie Strong was able to come to UofL and pull was nothing short of remarkable, but it was also aided considerably by playing in the weakest of the six BCS conferences. That safety net is gone, which made the stakes in this search exponentially higher than they were four years ago.

Louisville needs to win right away. A 3-9 or 4-8 season in 2014 likely means a big recruiting hit and a blow to the psyche of existing players, which could result in a two or three-year rebuilding process. In 2009 or 2010, the same type of result meant significantly less because you knew it would be easier to bounce back. You knew you didn’t have to have elite talent or perform near the best of your ability to win every week.

If UofL wants to be a top-tier ACC team three or four years from now, it needs to prove right out of the gate that it’s worthy of competing at that level. Could Chad Morris or Pat Narduzzi have come here and accomplished that feat? Maybe. Or maybe they would have taken a couple of years to learn how to be a successful head coach, a curve which would have killed any chance of being successful at Louisville before the fan base and the boosters started to revoke support.

UofL President Dr. James Ramsey and Football Coach Bobby Petrino.

UofL President Dr. James Ramsey and Football Coach Bobby Petrino.

Petino also provides a level of consistency that has proven to be of paramount importance in these delicate situations.

According to multiple players on the 2007 team, Steve Kragthorpe made his biggest mistake at UofL during his first couple of weeks on the job. Kragthorpe inherited a group of players who had been terrified of disappointing Bobby Petrino, and he tried to be their friend. The result was players who started skipping workouts, stopped going to class and who didn’t buy it at all when Kragthorpe attempted to magically morph into a disciplinarian.

Louisville players have loved Charlie Strong for the past four years, but they’ve also feared and respected him. Bringing in a coach who doesn’t demand that same level of fear and respect could result in a disaster similar to 2007-09.

The worst thing that could happen right now is for there to be a culture clash that results in wide-scale dismissals, transfers or suspensions of key players. Petrino is enough like Strong that I don’t think that’s going to happen.

If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s this: a brilliant coach with a chip on his shoulder after being humbled is capable of accomplishing some remarkable things. Bobby Petrino is a brilliant coach with a chip on his shoulder after being humbled.

It’s not like Petrino doesn’t know what’s being said. It’s not like he isn’t aware of all the people who want to see him fail. The distractions and the wandering eyes are no longer a concern, because “New Bobby” understands that if he doesn’t win now, it’s pretty much over for him.

Basically, Cardinal fans are about to get what they always wanted from 2003 to 2006: a Petrino focused solely on winning big at the University of Louisville.

Perhaps more important than anything is the fact Petrino has repaired his relationship with Tom Jurich, a person to whom he has to feel indebted.

My fiancé – a horrible word which makes me feel embarrassed even when I type it – and I spent a few weeks during the offseason watching “Orange is the New Black.” The key is finding shows you both enjoy and then watching the ones the other person hates after they fall asleep. But that’s advice for a different column). There’s a moment in the show that I’ve kept thinking about since the rumors of Petrino’s return first started.

The show is about a woman’s experience in prison. In one episode, the character Nicky admits to the prison’s alpha female that she betrayed her, even though it was the alpha who took her under her wing when she first arrived. The alpha takes it in stride, offering up this response when a confused Nicky asks if she understood what she just revealed:

“I know. And that’s why I trust you. Because I know you’ll do whatever it takes to make things right.”

None of us should trust Bobby Petrino. He’s earned that doubt. But if there was ever a situation where Petrino would be loyal enough to focus all of his attention on achieving the task assigned to him by his employer, this is it. Career restoration will fuel that same effort, sure, but it’s impossible for Petrino not to feel like he owes Jurich a great deal right now.

An indebted man with something to prove is capable of some incredible things.