By Michelle Lewis
When Charlie Strong said “I’m not cut that way” both Louisville football players and fans believed him. People felt like, finally; finally we have a coach who wants to be here, who wants to build his legacy, a coach who means it when he says he’s not going anywhere. Maybe he meant it at the time but even if he did, he still left. Not only did he leave the school and the fans, he left his players without even telling them he was leaving.
It wasn’t the first time a coach has left U of L; it wasn’t even the worst, most painful way Louisville has been left by a coach. During the Cardinals’ bowl game in 2002 players learned from reporters that John L Smith was leaving for Michigan State. No, you didn’t read that wrong, they found out during half time of the bowl game. Then, his exit got worse, uglier and more painful. During an interview Smith answered a question about U of L and its fans by saying “The people here have no idea where they are on the food chain. Does that make sense? You better know where you are on the food chain and what sharks are doing. They think they’re at the top of the food chain, and they’re not.” Ouch, talk about stinging.
Bobby Petrino was introduced as Louisville’s new head coach at the same time Smith was cleaning out his desk down the hall. People know what happened next. Petrino led the school to a 41-9 record overall, a 20-game home win streak, and a 4-0 record against in-state rival UK. The Cardinals went to a bowl game every year under Petrino and won the 2006 Orange Bowl finishing the season ranked third in the country, U of L’s highest ever ranking.
After the 2006 season Petrino was hired to be the head coach of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. For Louisville fans, this was devastating. Petrino had interviewed for other jobs but had signed a contract extension just before the season and while he had interviewed for other jobs before nobody expected his departure given the season the Cards had just wrapped up, the talent returning the next year, and the expectations that it was finally time to compete for a national championship. The NFL is a game changer though and when most are honest, few blame him for taking the job.
When Athletic Director Tom Jurich learned that Charlie Strong was leaving he wanted to move fast selecting a new coach. He didn’t have to look far. The new head coach was about 100 miles away and already had a daughter at U of L and a son who had led Trinity High School to a state football championship. He and his wife were already familiar with both Louisville and the university. Jurich knew the coach but needed to be convinced. After a nine-hour interview, both Jurich and Louisville fans were saying, “Welcome back, Bobby”.
Many fans were ecstatic, some less than enthused, but none doubt that Jurich’s chose a very talented coach who wins. Petrino could lose 50 games straight and still have a career winning record. Louisville fans have been burned in the past though and those who doubt this hire do so because of his previous departure. They feel that’s the reason not to hire him again. They fear having their hearts broken again. Most don’t admit that though, instead they cite his tenures with the Falcons (he quit after going 3-10) and then Arkansas where he was fired after having a motorcycle accident with his mistress on board then lying about it.
Yes, his actions in both instances were less than honorable but had nothing to do with his time at Louisville or why he is the right choice for Louisville now. To figure that out you can start by listening to what his former players say.
“Those of you bashing Bobby Petrino…. Explain to me what did he ever do to Louisville besides win games?” tweeted former Louisville football player Richard Raglan. Another alum, current Chicago Bear Michael Bush said “Now the question is how I feel about it. I’m all for it. People mess up in life. You live and learn. The bottom line is Bobby Petrino wins games.”
Nearly 100 former Cardinals voiced their support for Coach Petrino through tweets, interviews, phone calls and emails. In addition, NFL wide receiver Roddy White said through multiple media that he’d send his son to play for Petrino given the chance and CBS Sports’ Greg Doyle wrote an article on why he thinks Petrino is the right choice and deserves the second chance and basketball analyst Dick Vitale voiced his support as well.
More important than what any of them think or even than what fans think, is how the players feel. Many were hurt and disappointed by Strong’s departure and especially by not having been told he was leaving. Many learned he was Texas bound from ESPN coverage and weren’t sure how they felt about Petrino. Then they talked to his former players, to people who were around when he was at Louisville before, and then to him and they were won over. The guys on offense were likely the easiest to win over once they had seen footage of his offense. Several current players loved seeing the comments he made about rival UK, which if you haven’t seen these, go directly to Google and YouTube and check these out for yourself, and just as many fell in love with the black uniforms they saw the Cards wearing in big games.
“Things are going to change……I’m good with that” tweeted defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin. He later added “As a senior for my squad, and the first player to speak to coach Petrino, I can speak for the team and say we’re about to have a hell of a year.”
If Jurich and the players are convinced he deserves the chance to be Louisville’s coach again and his family has forgiven his mistakes then fans should stand with them and say, again, welcome back, Bobby.