Why Petrino Deserves a (Second) Chance at Louisville

Two years ago I wrote a piece for this site speculating about the motivations behind that infamous April incident in the Ozarks involving the head coach, the former volleyball player, and the motorcycle.

At the time, I thought Bobby Petrino’s reckless actions and subsequent termination may have been part of a long con. A plan to escape Arkansas and land on his feet at Auburn, Texas, or Missouri. However, now I realize I may have been wrong. The long con may not have been for money or power. It may have been for something much simpler. After spending a year away from the game and this last year in purgatory at Western Kentucky, Bobby Petrino is setting his sights on returning to the place where his rise to offensive mastermind peaked, Louisville. With plenty of credible sources insisting that a return to Louisville is a possibility (Update: According to ESPN's Brett McMurphy, Petrino is one of three finalists to replace Charlie Strong), the coaching enigma seems to be closing in on two things that have eluded him once he reached the top of his profession: happiness and closure.

As an Arkansas fan, I have moved past Petrino. Probably not forgiven him, considering that his actions reverberated throughout the program and resulted in two lost seasons—the John L. Smith debacle and the complete overhaul this last season to a new philosophy under Bret Bielema—but I have no desire to relive or recreate the Petrino-era. Like any relationship with a gorgeous partner whom you only have a shot with because he or she is a complete headcase, Petrino-Arkansas was fun while it lasted. The fallout that ensues is always hell, though. Sharing photos, burning clothes, starting rumors, you know.

Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the possibility of Petrino returning to Louisville. This is a man who has spent his life chasing money, power, and prestige. The series finale of Lost makes more sense than trying to sort out and understand the logic behind the head coaching jobs Petrino has held, chased, or inquired about over the last two decades. And now Petrino has the rare chance to prove he is a changed man with a school that understands his shortcomings all too well (the same chance he's getting with his wife). Coaching at WKU, no matter what he does on or the off the field, is never going to prove that Petrino has learned from his mistakes. The stakes simply aren’t high enough. The grand prize is what, a berth in the GoDaddy Bowl? Although Louisville isn’t the SEC—or even the Big 10, Big 12, or ACC, for that matter—it would apply enough pressure to test the new Petrino, the one who was going to keep his life "in better balance," as he told Joe Schad four months after being fired at Arkansas.

Jump back to when Petrino was at Louisville the first time as head coach. In his final of four seasons, he guided the program to a 12-1 record, including a BCS win in the Orange Bowl. I don’t blame him for capitalizing on his success and jumping to the NFL. Yes, he signed a 10-year contract worth over $25 million and expressed his eternal love for the university, only to leave a few months later. But, given the context, it's hard to blame him. Petrino was getting the chance that hundreds of high school, college, and even then-current NFL coaches dreamed about: coaching in the NFL with possibly the most exciting young player ever at quarterback in Michael Vick.

Even then Louisville AD Tom Jurich agreed, saying as much at the time: “I fully expect him to turn his back on other jobs. Granted, if it's the New England Patriots and its $10 million or something, he needs to take it.” That’s what coaching the Falcons and Vick was for Petrino, the coaching jackpot. Petrino’s offensive genius and Vick’s insane athleticism and talent were a match made in football heaven. No one could have foreseen what happened next. Vick’s dogfighting scandal and subsequent jailing, Petrino’s cowardly exit from Atlanta, and his clandestine hiring at Arkansas. The career arcs of both Petrino and Vick would probably be drastically different if they had had any significant time together. It didn’t work out that way, but who’s to say that Petrino didn’t mean the things he said about Louisville before the Falcons offered him the job.

After signing the 10-year contract in 2006, Petrino said that Louisville was “home” and that it was where he and his family wanted to be. Call me naïve, but I think the now assumed pathological liar may have been telling the truth. He spent more time (five years total: four as head coach and one as offensive coordinator) at Louisville than any other job. Like many coaches, though, the lure of more money and a chance at succeeding at the highest level overrode loyalty. His competitiveness and ego wouldn’t let him say no to the NFL. This is not something anyone should hold against Petrino—very few people would react differently in a similar situation.

To be clear, the old trappings are there as possible motivation for Petrino’s return to Louisville. He would regain some of the money, power, and prestige that crashed into the ditch with his motorcycle two years ago. There is not enough evidence for anyone to say with certainty that Petrino might not return to Louisville, take the existing talent to a BCS game, and leave again for greener pastures. Although I suspect Jurich would draft a contract with stipulations that might make Petrino's wife's post-affair demands seem lenient. Many of the assistant coaches and former players who have been burned by Petrino—like former-Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, who is still struggling to recover from his former coach’s advice and actions—will undoubtedly scoff at the notion that Petrino has changed (although some former Louisville players have already spoke out in support of Petrino, according to CBSSports.com’s Gregg Doyel). Luckily he doesn't have to convince them nor should he have to; like everyone else, they have made mistakes and were given second, third, and fourth chances.

Petrino’s career has been in a tailspin that is largely his fault since leaving Louisville in 2006, but not completely. Yes, he chose to leave Louisville and he chose to leave Atlanta, but there was more going on than just black-and-white choices between right and wrong, this program versus that program (even if he could have left with more dignity and respect). Then Petrino seemingly had it all when he was at Arkansas, but karma hadn't caught up with him yet. It all culminated in a motorcycle wreck in the Ozarks (more bad choices, more victims left in his wake), where he crashed and burned literally and figuratively five years later. Louisville represents a simpler time for Petrino, I think. A time when his family was whole, he still had a shred of innocence, and he actually enjoyed coaching football. And I may be just one former fan, but I hope he gets his chance at redemption at Louisville.

Hopefully this time Petrino will find closure to a tumultuous career partly of his own creation, and not reject it when temptation comes calling in a few years.

Written by
Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021. One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines. Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide. Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports. Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.