LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- With Bobby Petrino's name picking up steam among University of Louisville football fans as Tom Jurich's coaching search goes on, it's worth evaluating his candidacy at U of L, because it carries some different storylines than it would at any other school.
There's a history, and it's good, and bad -- but not for the reasons most fans think.
Petrino's actions at Arkansas are not the major concern. When he was hired at Western Kentucky, the media had its say pro and con about his return to the game. (Click here for the column I wrote about Petrino then). He's back, and that episode is what it is, but it's also in the past. And Petrino's constant job flirtations and eventual departure from U of L are not even the major concern. It's a different job now. Bigger and better facilities and conference make it so. And Petrino is not, nor will he probably ever be, the hot commodity he once was.
Most fans remember Petrino's 41-9 record and Orange Bowl victory, the high-powered offenses and NFL Draft picks. There is plenty on the record to make anyone wish for a Petrino return. And many do. The fan groundswell of support for him has been vocal and widespread. In the years after his departure, I have been one of those who defended his tenure in large part.
But Jurich also saw the program from the inside-out. He's a different person now too. A year or so after Petrino left, Jurich told me that he had not kept close enough watch on the program during Petrino's tenure, because some things were sliding that should not have been.
If you're a booster, or heard Jurich speak in the years after Petrino left on numerous occasions, you heard him speak of problems in the program that had to be cleaned up. The number of players Steve Kragthorpe wound up dismissing for substance abuse issues, for one, was a problem. They wouldn't discuss it at the time. Couldn't discuss it, "for legal reasons," Kragthorpe said. The same way Rick Pitino couldn't be specific when dealing with the dismissal of Chane Behanan. But they weren't problems that Kragthorpe created. They were problems he inherited. (I outlined the good and the bad in this partial accounting of the difficulty of life post-Petrino in this column.)
Of Petrino's 2006 recruiting class, his last at U of L, only three players were starting just three years later and only seven were playing regularly.
In a December, 2008, interview, Jurich told me: "Bobby went to areas where he thought he was strong recruiting and some of them panned out and some didn't. That's the nature of it. But listen, we had to clear out a lot of discipline issues. And our numbers suffered. We cleared 21 kids out of here, and that's a lot. That's a big hit for anybody to take, Eric. I don't know anyone that has. But we want to do things the right way."
Academically, the program was fine under Petrino. Players who stayed graduated. That wasn't an issue. They stayed out of the courts. For three years, there was hardly a public incident.
What bothered Jurich was that while Petrino built great teams, he wasn't concerned in his first stop in Louisville with building a program. And within a year of leaving, it fell apart. Much of that was due to a new coaching staff that didn't get the job done. But some of it was because Petrino was not building for the long-term.
It's one reason Jurich was so happy with Strong. He was setting the program's foundation on a solid footing, academically and otherwise. Jurich called him "the whole package."
This is the bigger obstacle to Petrino making a U of L return.
Jurich can't hire a coach who will take short cuts. While Petrino built a great record in his time here, his main concern was building his resume for bigger and better things. U of L benefited from that, but once Petrino and his personal brand of coaching were gone, it suffered.
Jurich is going to have to decide whether Petrino not only is in it for a longer haul at Louisville, but whether he's going to build it for a longer haul.
Academic requirements are tougher now than they were when Petrino arrived. You can take fewer risks. But with the new conference affiliation, new doors are open and more rewards are possible.
I've talked to Petrino since his arrival back in the state at Western Kentucky. I've been impressed at the things he's had to say. He says he's a changed person -- but mainly a changed coach. He says he's more personally involved with players. At Louisville, he was very much aloof. Much of the player interaction was with position coaches.
But his former players here, many of them, speak highly of him. Brian Brohm, Michael Bush and Elvis Dumervil all have publicly endorsed his return to Louisville.
What Petrino says probably is secondary in this situation. He wants to get back to the big time, and he's going to say the right things.
Jurich's job will be to talk to Petrino's players now, to the people he works with at WKU, maybe some of his staff, to get a feel for whether this is the same guy who had a "reign of terror" internally for some staff members at Louisville or whether he really has, as he says, softened in his relationships with people.
I'm not opposed to a Petrino return in principle. But in practicality, it's a bit more complicated. A person couldn't endure some of the things he's gone through and not be changed in some way. I wouldn't be worried about a repeat of that behavior.
But the notion that you can just plug him in and start winning again is a bit too simplistic.
He's a great coach who could, conceivably, do good things with the players Strong left behind. But for those who care about the program as a whole, and you can put Jurich at the top of that list, there are many questions to be asked and answered before it gets to the football side.
Bobby Petrino is a genius between the lines. It's what Jurich makes of where Petrino now stands outside the lines that will determine whether he gets a second chance.
Jurich will get at those answers. If he's satisfied, we could well see Petrino Part II. If he's not, we won't see it, no matter how many games Petrino might promise to win.
Sources close to Jurich have told me both things. He's open to Petrino. He will never hire Petrino. Jurich himself says the relationship is fine and that he's open to looking. He's expected to make contact as early as today.
Petrino has hung over this coaching search like no one else. He won a poll of WDRB.com readers asking who they wanted the next coach to be. About 44 percent of respondents wanted Petrino. The problem? The other 56 percent likely would say "absolutely not."
With the hiring of Charlie Strong, U of L football gained national credibility that came with the respect that he had garnered from all quarters, it seemed. If they hire Petrino, it's going to bring another kind of image and response entirely. Some U of L fans who aren't among those hanging the "Bring Back Bobby" banners are worried about that.
One thing seems clear now. No matter how many candidates Jurich talks to, he's going to have to come to some resolution on Petrino, pro or con, before he can move forward definitively. And he has far more to weigh than meets the eye.