LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- They're going to say he's a changed man. But the University of Louisville is banking on its next football coach being the same old Bobby Petrino.
I get why U of L wants him. He wins. He was 41-9 in his first stint in town. His teams didn't just win games, they blew them up.
The things that happened at Arkansas, I can see how you get past them. People should get the opportunity to change. I'm all for second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) chances. So let's lay Arkansas aside. It's a pretty big thing to lay aside, but for the purposes of this discussion, let's leave it.
I want to talk about Western Kentucky. My guess is that we're going to hear a lot of "changed man" narrative over the next couple of days. I've interviewed Petrino since he arrived at WKU. He said he's changed. He has more of a personal relationship with players, he said. He tries to coach the total person, he said, not just the football player.
U of L athletic director Tom Jurich is famous for doing his homework. He talks to everybody. I'm interested to see what his discussions in Bowling Green turned up. Here's why. I've only had four or five conversations with folks down there, and they did not paint the picture of a changed man.
They painted a picture of the same old Petrino.
"Yeah, there's no doubt he's a great coach," one person who did not wish to be identified but who is attached to the WKU program told me. "But man, he carries so much other crap with him. The way he treated people in Bowling Green, and around that program, verbally berating coaches in front of players and support staff. We'd be traveling and somebody would screw up or something wasn't right and he'd be all over people out in the middle of an airport or hotel lobby with people standing around. Very unprofessional."
If Petrino is a changed man, he ought to look a lot different from the Petrino who roared through Louisville, generally treating support staff with disdain or disrespect and otherwise doing whatever he wanted while, in the process, treating the school like an old junker that he couldn't wait to trade in. I know. Fans don't care about that stuff if a coach is winning. But that's part of the point. This hire is not about redemption. It is not about second chances. It is about winning. Let's call it what it is.
If there have been events in Bowling Green that run counter to the changed man narrative, they probably should, you would think, throw up red flags. And given a coach of Petrino's long track record, even one or two red flags ought to be enough to make a school tap the brakes.
Meet red flag No. 1, Danny Cobble. The trainer for the WKU football team told The Chronicle of Higher Education that Petrino "questioned his medical abilities, was impatient with return-to-play times, and pushed back on physicians' decisions."
On one occasion, when it was determined a player needed surgery, Cobble said Petrino suggested the injury be treated with cortisone. The player got a second opinion, an independent doctor confirmed that he should have surgery, and he wound up getting it. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported these events. You can read its account here.
Now, coaches and trainers clash all the time. But what caught my eye was the allegation that, once again, Petrino was openly critical of a professional university staff employee in front of other employees and, in general, acting in an unprofessional manner himself. And a trainer who was supposed to answer to an independent supervisor instead came under Petrino's control, and the coach got his way when the trainer was fired.
In and of itself, that's not such a big deal, and happens all the time in college football. But if you're a changed man, it's a different story. If you're a changed man, when you hear a player needs surgery, is your first response to have the kid suck it up and get a shot of cortisone? Is it to get involved in an argument with the trainer delivering the news?
How many red flags does it take?
Meet red flag No. 2. The classroom. Two faculty members told me today that had the Hilltoppers been invited to a bowl game the team would've been weakened by the number of players not academically eligible to play, depending on when grades were posted. When confronted mid-semester with the poor attendance of some players, Petrino, two sources said, told compliance officials he hadn't been required to monitor players' class attendance at Arkansas and didn't realize he was supposed to be doing it at WKU.
Who knows. I asked WKU for a response on player eligibility today. I haven't received one. At the very least, it would seem there are questions in this area.
Jurich, I would imagine, got satisfactory answers to these and other questions. But if he did his homework in Bowling Green, he knows that Petrino's general behavior as regards his co-workers does not appear to have changed much. Jurich reportedly spent hours with Petrino. Maybe those hours turned up reasonable responses. But I know from experience, because I interviewed him over the summer, Petrino is saying all the right things. The question is whether he is, to borrow a phrase, doing things the right way.
It only takes a couple of red flags for me to think he's not as changed as the narrative is going to say he is. I'm not talking about sex scandals or job-hopping. I'm talking about running a program in a reasonable and even responsible manner, and a manner befitting the foundation that has been laid over the past four years, and befitting an institution whose recent selection into the Atlantic Coast Conference was hard-won after years of effort.
In all fairness, I've tried to account for what might be my own bias in all this. I've been on the other end of irate Petrino phone calls. Shoot, somewhere in a TV office in Louisville (not this one) is video of a telephone on speaker, and coming through the speaker is a tirade of such blistering obscenity that hearing through the bleeps would be difficult. A reporter had asked about the wrong thing, and Petrino went nuts. Maybe I'm letting all that affect my thinking. But I don't think so. My goal with Petrino since his return has been to try to be fair. I think I have been. I know coaches act irrationally and are not easy people to deal with. Nick Saban has probably rattled a few cages in his time. They all do. Am I being tougher on Petrino? I ask myself that in all seriousness.
Certainly, I've seen former Petrino players who I respect, one after another, express their gratitude to him, and their support for him taking this job. I've written time and again, his tenure in Louisville was marked by a lack of off-the-field drama and players who stayed tended to do fine academically. I appreciated what he has done for Mike Cassity, a defensive coach diagnosed with cancer. Petrino kept him on staff at WKU and made allowances for his treatment. That was a good thing. I hope it's a sign of what's to come.
Petrino is, and I've never begrudged him this, the most talented football coach I've ever covered. And in some ways, the intimidation tactics that make him such a difficult person to deal with in life make him an ideal person to coach a football team.
I go back a long way with him. I was here the day he became a head coach. I was on the job the week he met with the Auburn boosters. I was here the day he left. I'm here the day he comes back. I'm looking forward to covering him. I think he's a fascinating guy, and a fantastic coach. He wins. I'm not going to harp on these concerns. I've said my piece. And to be honest, this is one of those columns in which I'd be happy to be proven wrong.
But don't give me the changed man line. Not now. He has not had time to demonstrate his commitment to program building, not after one season at WKU. In fact, if you want the bare facts of it, he did what he always has done -- he came, he did what he wanted, he left for a better job as soon as it was offered. So I'm not signing on to the narrative that is sure to come. I don't think he's messing around on motorcycles or carousing or a flight risk like he used to be. I'm willing to take him at his word on that.
But in other ways, he's the same old Bobby Petrino. And not only is U of L banking on it, but it has a whole lot riding on it. It's about winning. Let's call it what it is.
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