It’s true, Bobby Petrino has really been re-hired by Louisville as its football coach.
No need to cue the outrage. It’s been out there since rumors started circulating that he was even being considered for the position. After all, it hasn’t even been two years since Petrino was fired from his last big-time college football coaching job, at the University of Arkansas. In case you’re a little hazy on the details, this picture should jog your memory: The neck brace and scraped-up face were courtesy of a nasty motorcycle wreck while his girlfriend -- a 25-year-old former Arkansas volleyball player, Jessica Dorrell, who also happened to be on the payroll of his football program -- was riding as a passenger.
Not only has Petrino managed to land another big job, he’s going to be coaching at the school where he first built his reputation for selfishness, dishonesty and opportunism. During his first season at Louisville in 2003, Petrino met secretly with some officials at Auburn about the head coaching job there -- and then denied having done so. The following season he met secretly with officials at several other schools, including Notre Dame. All the while, he was pledging his unwavering loyalty to Louisville.
In July 2006, Petrino signed a 10-year, $25.5 million contract extension with Louisville, and insisted that it include a $1 million buyout clause to demonstrate his faithfulness to the school. “This is where my family wants to be and where I want to be,” he said. Or maybe not. At the end of the season, he left to coach the Atlanta Falcons. Now, he’ll be re-joining Louisville after pulling more or less the same stunt at Western Kentucky, which had been kind enough to give him a “second chance” after the Arkansas debacle.
Lying, cheating, breaking commitments -- Petrino does not exactly qualify as a molder of young men. What he is good at is coaching football. You can argue, as many have, that Louisville’s re-hiring of Petrino represents a kind of betrayal, that it sends the “wrong message” -- the message that winning is the only thing that matters. But isn’t it?
Let’s abandon the fiction that college football coaches are educators who bleed the color of their respective programs. That big-time college sports are “pure” in some way that professional sports aren’t. That it’s all about alumni and hometown spirit, not wins.
Let’s accept the reality that college football is very popular because it successfully leverages the brands of major universities to appeal to alumni and fan bases that care, above all, about winning games. Football programs are businesses. They make money, and everyone involved -- save the players -- earns what the market will bear. The coaches, meanwhile, enjoy contracts that ensure that they get paid even if they are fired, and that allow them to walk away for better opportunities elsewhere. Their new employers are almost always more than happy to cover the relatively modest costs of their buyout clauses.
Bobby Petrino is a dishonest man, but he makes his living in a dishonest business, one built on the fundamental lie that by preventing student-athletes from getting compensated for their efforts, the National Collegiate Athletic Association is protecting them from “exploitation from professional and commercial enterprises.” Take a look at the long list of college juniors who have declared for the NFL draft in recent days and you will see just how much the players appreciate this protection. They want to make the most of what may very well be the best earnings years of their lives, and who can blame them?
Maybe, for all of his lying and cheating, Petrino is actually the Knute Rockne of the modern era. Maybe the message he is sending to young football players is exactly the one they need to hear: Boys, this game is going to chew you up and spit you out, so grab what you can while you can.