LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- During the long winter after his expulsion from college football following a scandal at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino turned many places.
He turned first to counseling, and to his family. He turned, as he always has, to football, keeping up with the game, soliciting video from college and pro teams and talking with other coaches. He turned to ESPN for a painful confessional interview.
But there's one other place Petrino turned, to a person you might not expect.
Petrino turned to Tom Jurich.
That's right. A pair that at one time seemed destined to become the George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin of college football came to a meeting of the minds during Petrino's exile from the game. In a one-on-one interview with WDRB Sports last month, Petrino said he owes a lot to the University of Louisville athletic director.
"Tom really helped me going through this rough time," Petrino said. "With the year off I talked to him a number of times. I was really happy that he was able to give me some guidance and direction on how to go. I'm very, very grateful for that."
It wasn't the first time Jurich had helped Petrino navigate a tight spot. He did the same when Petrino coached at U of L. This time, however, Jurich's vote of confidence was available for anyone who wanted to consider Petrino for a job. And his recommendation carries considerable weight, including at Western Kentucky, where Petrino landed as head coach.
"Obviously, he's a great athletic director and a great person and I can't say enough about how much he's helped me throughout my whole career," Petrino said.
Petrino left Louisville for a chance to coach in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons. But he also left for a more specific motivation. The son of an option guru at Carroll College in Montana, Petrino saw the possibilities in dual-threat quarterbacks against zone blitz defenses early on. While leaving for the NFL offered a chance on football's largest stage for a great deal more money, it also offered Petrino something else -- a chance to coach the most talented dual-threat quarterback in the game, Michael Vick.
"That played a lot into the decision," Petrino said. "I would have loved to gotten to coach Michael. He was a guy I got to work with for a number of months and had a lot of fun with him. I was very, very impressed with his talent, not only his ability to run the ball but throw it. So I wish him well. I hope he finishes up his career here and has nothing but success."
Petrino said he doesn't play the regret game when asked if he had it to do over, whether he would've left Louisville for that situation. From Atlanta, he went to Arkansas, where he led a second college program to a BCS Bowl.
"You always look back on 'What if?' or 'Should I have stayed?' or 'Did I make a mistake?'" Petrino said. "At the time I thought I was doing something I always dreamed of and always wanted to do in the NFL. Certainly when I did leave, I've always been a Louisville fan."
Now, however, he's a Western Kentucky coach. Petrino said one of the highlights of coming back to Kentucky has been pulling together people with whom he has long association, many of whom coached with him. Jeff Brohm is on his WKU staff. He also tabbed Nick Holt, a former U of L assistant under John L. Smith.
He has gotten just about every question in the book since arriving in Bowling Green to coach. They want to know how long he's going to be in town. His contract is for four years, and if he leaves before coaching three, given the buyout, he'll essentially have coached for free. Still, the main question he faced in his early days on the job was, "How long will you be here?"
"That was a question that came up when I first took the job and in every house I went recruiting," he said. "I just tell them this was a family decision. I thought it was the best thing for my family. . . . So what we need to do is really focus on what our vision is. Our vision is to make a bowl game every single year and win the bowl game. . . . We need to win a conference championship, and then we're looking forward to the rules changes and the highest-ranked team in the five other conferences getting an automatic BCS bid."
When talk turns to football, Petrino begins to smile. Clearly, he's ready for the discussion to return to the game, to offense and defense, and to building what he hopes will be a third program to reach a BCS game. He says he has changed, that there's no way a person can go through what he did and not emerge different on the other side.
Petrino says he's changed, "In a lot of ways. There's no question I'm really focusing and keeping my eyes on my family and keeping my priorities. . . . I think I'm doing a great job of understanding where players are coming from and taking it more on an individual basis to help them with their obstacles and what they're going through."
One surprise -- when asked about his upcoming WKU team, Petrino talked about defense first, about some key returning players at linebacker and quality in the secondary. That's probably because Petrino faces more questions on offense, particularly in which quarterback will emerge as a starter.
But clearly, those are questions he's eager to deal with. After a year in which his personal life was on center stage, he relishes his return to the football conversation.
He has two major opportunities right away. The Hilltoppers will open against Kentucky in Nashville, then travel to Knoxville to face Tennessee. Both opponents have new coaches -- neither school gave Petrino a hard look when it had an opening.
"The funny thing is I have been through it before," Petrino said. "My opening game at Louisville was against Rich Brooks, two new coaches. So we do have some work to do. We've worked hard on Florida State defense and Texas Tech offense (to prepare for new UK head coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown). It's a good way to go as far as understanding schemes, but you don't really get to look at their personnel. So what you have to do is go back to last year's video. When we watch Tennessee video we're watching Cincinnati (where Butch Jones coached), what they did offensively and defensively and how well-coached they were. But preparing for those two games is a thing that is fun and exciting. And then the thing that plays into it so much is it'll be our first time going to battle, so to say, together. So we really don't know what to expect from our players and how they're going to react in the momentum changes and swings during the game, so we've got a lot of work ahead of us."
Despite everything, however, when asked if there's something he wants to prove personally in his return to the game, Petrino said no.
"Not at all," he said. "I'm really enjoying being back in it. I'm enjoying working with the players, working with our coaches on a daily basis. I'm probably enjoying coaching as much now as I ever have."