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Bobby Petrino seemed truly grateful for a second chance last week as he was introduced, again, as the head football coach for the University of Louisville Cardinals. He should be.
The man who left Louisville for the NFL with little warning and in a manner that rankled most Cardinal fans, stood before a crowded press conference as a humbled man who now speaks as though Louisville will be his final destination. If so, the trip he took getting here couldn’t have been more bumpy.
He didn’t last one full season with the Atlanta Falcons. Some say he never earned the respect of the players, but whatever the reason, he packed up and left the team, again without warning, and without even addressing the players. He then took over the Arkansas Razorbacks, a once-proud program trying to climb its way up the top of the SEC West, and with a proven winner like Petrino at the helm it seemed like only a matter of time. And so it was.
Petrino had his Razorbacks primed for a run for the National Championship in 2012, but a few months before the season was to kick-off, he was fired after his relationship with a much-younger former Arkansas employee was exposed following a motorcycle accident involving he and his mistress. He gave an apology-ridden interview on ESPN and said he was trying to save his marriage and family.
Just a few months later, Petrino was hired as the head coach at Western Kentucky University and just 13 months later, he’s back at Louisville where he will be expected to build upon the success of Charlie Strong, who accepted the head coaching job at Texas a few days prior.
There were some rumblings that Louisville shouldn’t hire Petrino given his personal failures. Those voices, well-intentioned, simply failed to understand that college athletics is no longer concerned with right and wrong, it’s about winning. Given the emphasis on winning, Louisville made a good decision.
Petrino is a genius of a football coach. His exciting brand of light-up-the-scoreboard offense will generally be attractive to some of the most talented high school players and once he gets them on campus, there’s no reason to doubt that he’ll be able to duplicate the success he’s had in the past, which included Louisville’s first-ever BCS bowl victory in the Orange Bowl.
Cardinal fans will now have to endure a lot of hypocritical jeering from other fans over the hiring decision. Kentucky fans were quick to chime in with their holier-than-thou attitudes. I’ve read some UK fans critical of Petrino for leaving WKU after just one season. However, Petrino’s 13-month stay in Bowling Green was nearly twice as long as the typical stay for John Calipari’s blue-chip basketball recruits in Lexington. And both Petrino and Calipari’s one-and-dones are driven by the same motivation — money.
In fact, money is driving college athletics today. That’s why I’m accepting Louisville’s decision to hire Petrino. College athletics is no longer about ethics or character or winning the right way or teaching the right lessons — it’s all about winning and making money. It’s taken me a while to acknowledge that and it’s caused no shortage of frustration for me over the last few years.
But I see it for what it is today. It’s a business and nothing more. Perhaps there are a few schools out there that want their student-athletes to take the first part of their title seriously. The service academies and a few of the prestigious schools come to mind. However, most of your big time Division I schools today care more about scoring averages than grade point averages. A recent CNN investigative report casts a huge cloud over the entire concept of “student-athlete” in major college sports.
So let’s just accept that college athletics has nothing to do with college and everything to do with television ratings, filling up stadiums and arenas, and winning games. If we can accept this reality, then we should have no problem in accepting the fact that Bobby Petrino is back with a multi-million dollar contract.
Every day I find more and more reasons to distance myself from college sports. I love the game, but I hate the business. Major League Baseball, with all its flaws with steroids and contract disputes, at least is trying to address some of its problems. I find more integrity in the business of baseball than with the institution of college athletics. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in less than six weeks. I can’t wait.