First, I would like to welcome Ryan Hammel to the Covered In Red team (which has now grown to 2). Ryan is going to be writing for the site, and brings a unique perspective/writing style. I will have a more formal introduction for Ryan when the smoke clears a little. Here is his first piece, which with the time, of course touches on the Bobby Petrino saga. I’ll stop typing now so we can get to our feature presentation.
My first ever Louisville Football game was at Old Cardinal Stadium. I don’t recall the exact year, maybe 1993 or 94, but I sat behind a column and I don’t really remember the brand of football being all that exciting. Maybe because I didn’t or wouldn’t ever play a down of football. However, it kindled an interest within me which grew into a love for a sport I’d never play. From that day on, I followed Louisville football and the old guy with the pipe that my grandpa called ‘smelly burger.’ In a town of crazed basketball fans…I was football first.
My dad usually got basketball tickets through where he worked…so naturally I fell in love with Freedom Hall and Denny Crum’s mid-to-late 90s teams. I don’t need to run through the list of great players that passed through that old livestock expo center; you know their names. I always enjoyed John Tong’s public address, the Ladybirds (of course), and for a while at least I think I told people that Freedom Hall nachos were my favorite food.
I followed Louisville sports until it was time to think about college. When it became apparent that I wouldn’t get to play baseball after high school, I chose to stay close to home and go to UofL. I was excited, but I’d be lying if I said 75% of that excitement wasn’t focused on student season tickets for football and basketball because priorities. Living in Southern Indiana, my family were Hoosier fans. I converted them pretty quickly.
Rick Pitino had replaced Denny Crum in 2001, but by the time I started class on Floyd Street…the football program which had gained notoriety under that ‘smelly burger’ guy and then fallen off the face of the earth when Ron Cooper had taken over was brought back to life under John L. Smith. After Smith’s infamous ‘halftime of the GMAC Bowl’ exit and the subsequent negative comments made about the Louisville fan base, Tom Jurich needed to follow his hiring of Pitino with a blockbuster football coach to fill the seats in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and maintain the momentum gained under John L. Smith.
Enter Bobby Petrino.
It’s Clear That I’m Ahead of my Time. I Copped a Chromed-Out Hard Top Carrera to Shine
One of the hottest names among assistant coaches at the time, Petrino had led the Cardinals to the top scoring offense in Division 1-A (not yet FBS) football in his one season as offensive coordinator in 1998. With Chris Redman as his quarterback, the Petrino-led offense helped Louisville to the Motor City Bowl; its first postseason game since winning the 1993 Liberty Bowl. Louisville fell to Marshall in the Motor City Bowl, and Petrino left the Cardinals after parlaying his success into an NFL gig with the Jacksonville Jaguars. This would become a recurring theme…
In his first year in Jacksonville, the Jags made it to the AFC championship. Petrino was helped by having the Mark Brunell/Jimmy Smith combo, but it was difficult to argue that there was a more gifted offensive mind in football than Petrino. It was a simple philosophy: ‘feed the studs.’ His was an offensive mindset that was terrorizing for opposing defenses. Petrino knew what you did well, and he made sure that you didn’t do it when you played his team.
Tommy Tuberville lured Petrino to Auburn (Petrino’s very publicly-known dream job) and his success as offensive coordinator in 2002 led to his ‘homecoming’ in Louisville as head coach of the Cardinals. The season before…Louisville had famously knocked off Bobby Bowden’s #4-ranked Florida State Seminoles on a rainy night at Papa John’s (Henry Miller…HENRY MILLER!) in a game I attended under extremely odd circumstances (we’ll need beer and a lot of it for that story, but ask me sometime). That game bolstered John L. Smith’s name enough that Michigan State came calling (see paragraph #4) and ushered in the era of Petrino.
Exit Light. Enter Night. Take My Hand…We’re off to Never Never Land
Petrino’s freshman head coaching season in 2003 was my freshman student ticket season. The next four years were pure, unmitigated football joy. No one ‘stomped the bird’ and lived to tell about it. There were blackouts, there was ‘giving them what they wanted,’ there were NFL draft picks at seemingly every position. There was Michael Bush rumbling over and through everyone. There was Brohm-to-Douglas (and Brohm-to-Urrutia…just ask Lovon Ponder). There was Elvis Dumervil sacking every quarterback on what seemed like every play. Louisville had the career scoring leader in the NCAA in Lou Groza Award-winner Art ‘Art-o-Matic’ Carmody. There were forty-one wins and nine losses. None of those losses was to arch-rival Kentucky. The studs were well-fed. But…UofL took the good with the bad, as there were also the yearly rumors of interviews, late-night flights from LSU and meetings with Auburn. Tom Jurich and the Louisville fan base were constantly looking over their backs at which ‘big time’ school might come to steal the hottest commodity in coaching away from the Cardinal Football program. Petrino quelled those fears and reiterated his desire to be the Louisville football coach and signed a lucrative ten-year (basically a lifetime…) contract extension. Cardinal Euphoria ensued. Big Time. I was right in the middle of it.
The Thursday night, top-ten, blackout showdown versus West Virginia in November of 2006 is still the most electric atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of inside Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The emotion that night was at an all-time high for fans who, despite what others outside the program will tell you (ad nauseum); crave to be a big-time fan base. The Cards beat mighty West Virginia who featured Pat White and Steve Slaton, and they did it without Mike Bush. Fans poured onto the field into the cold during a scene reminiscent of the Florida State victory. Not only was a Big East Conference Championship and the school’s first ever Bowl Championship Series Game a glaring reality; so was the idea that Louisville would finally make the prophecy of Howard Schnellenberger come true. The variable was time…and the time had come for the collision course to end with a showdown for a crystal football. Louisville was a football power at last.
That emotional high would come crashing back to earth seven days later when William Gay would jump offside and allow Jeremy Ito to re-kick a missed game-winning field goal and give Rutgers a come-from-behind win against UofL where the aftermath was a mirror image of the week before. Rutgers fans streaming on the field in Piscataway to celebrate their school’s biggest win to date. Dreams of a date with Ohio State in University of Phoenix Stadium were crushed. There would be no crystal football. The brass ring still hung. The Cardinals finished the 2006 season with wins versus USF, Pitt, and UConn and due to the lack of a Big East Championship Game, held the tiebreaker over West Virginia and Rutgers to win the conference. The Petrino-led Cardinals went on to Miami to beat a solid Wake Forest team in the 2007 (then Fed Ex) Orange Bowl. Despite missing out on the BCS National Championship, Louisville had its first BCS bowl win. The program had arrived; despite the much-maligned Big East conference and knocks on the schedule and the perceived quality of conference competition. The future was bright. Brian Brohm announced his intent to forego NFL money and return for his senior year in 2007. A team capable of making another legitimate run at a national championship would return.
There Ain’t No Way To Hide Your Lyin’ Eyes
The rest, as they say, is history. Bobby Petrino, in typical Bobby Petrino fashion, left. The ten-year extension meant less than the paper on which it was printed. The NFL was too big a draw, and the Atlanta Falcons had a need for a head coach to develop Michael Vick into a complete dual-threat quarterback. Louisville fans felt left at the altar, and were then relegated to gridiron obscurity going 15-21 in three years under a coach commonly referred to as ‘He Who Shall Not Be Named.’ Petrino never got to coach Michael Vick (you are aware of why) and would leave once again in his own special way…by leaving his Falcons players notes in their lockers. The back story behind this exit is murky…but no matter how it may have been spun, it was an exit befitting a coach who wasn’t known for graceful goodbyes. The next image of Petrino was a bizarro shot of him in Fayetteville, Arkansas ‘calling the hogs.’ He was an SEC Football coach at long last.
Woo pig sooey.
Competition for Southeastern Conference Championships.
Deceiving his athletic director Jeff Long.
Being fired from his long-awaited job in the almighty SEC.
The once-beloved prodigal son had fallen from his gilded pedestal and shattered into a million tiny shards of former football glory. With no reputation left to salvage and no one willing to hire a man who had a penchant for having his next move planned well in advance; Bobby Petrino was broken. The coach whose eye never stopped wandering had found himself out of a job and out of options. Arkansas fell apart, and has yet to recover. The Atlanta Falcons organization is a shell of its former self. Louisville languished in the Big East under St___ Kr________. Petrino’s trail of program destruction knew no bounds. He was toxic at best, and un-hirable at worst.
How could anyone trust him? Why would any parent of a talented athlete allow their son to play football for someone they couldn’t know for sure wouldn’t abandon him at the first sniff of a bigger paycheck? How could Petrino possibly recover? In the eyes of many…he couldn’t. He had survived, but his coaching career died in that motorcycle accident in rural Arkansas.
That was, until Tom Jurich, the same man who had been a victim of Petrino’s untrustworthiness, vouched for him. When Willie Taggart left budding Western Kentucky University for Tampa and the South Florida Bulls, Tom Jurich went to bat for Bobby Petrino. The two patched a relationship that many thought was irreconcilable. Petrino was back in the bluegrass state with a chance to show that he was still an offensive genius and that his past transgressions had left him a humbled, changed man. His Hilltoppers team went 8-4. For the second year in a row, the small school from Bowling Green beat a school from the SEC. Despite the ghosts which followed his every step, and despite the still-ominous toxicity of his name; Bobby Petrino looked like he was having fun again.
Telephone Line, Give Me Some Time, I’m Living in Twilight
Louisville fans, meanwhile, were enamored with Charlie Strong. Not only had he resurrected the program and built a team which would transition seamlessly into their new Atlantic Coast Conference home; his coaching and recruiting would guarantee UofL a very competitive spot at the major conference table for years to come. Strong was finally the man whom Louisville fans thought was their long-term leader. For the first time, a coach had declared to Jim Rome that he wasn’t ‘cut like that,’ and spurned one of the biggest, most powerful, tradition-rich universities in Tennessee to stay at Louisville and build the program his way. Strong made it clear that Louisville was his program. Just weeks after turning down Rocky Top, Strong led Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals to the biggest win in school history over a Florida Gators team that was a bad bounce from the BCS Title game. Despite what you may have heard about the Sugar Bowl game (and I guarantee you heard it…) Florida was in fact ‘interested.’ They just flat-out got beat by Louisville. It was in that seminal stretch of time when Charlie Strong said ‘no’ to Tennessee then delivered that Sugar Bowl victory…many of us thought that he would end up immortalized in bronze outside of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
Just as the touristy slogans say…everything is bigger in Texas. After a Russell Athletic Bowl victory over ACC power Miami which capped off the one unenthusiastic season in the American Athletic Conference, Charlie Strong left Louisville on Saturday, January 4, 2014 to restore the Longhorns Football program to glory, and who could blame him? According to ESPN, the Texas job sits behind only the NFL’s Green Bay Packers as the best in all of football. Louisville was again left at the altar, lonely and confused. The man they’d accepted as their long-term leader had used his Louisville success to end up in Football Nirvana. He was, in fact, ‘cut like that.’
And Everybody Know Somebody That Know Somebody That Know Somethin’ Bout It
With Charlie Strong wearing burnt orange; names started to fly in Louisville: Chad Morris, Derek Mason, Pat Narduzzi, Vance Bedford, or as Jurich told the media the day after Strong’s departure…’everyone was in play.’ Everyone…including Bobby Petrino. Jurich promised a swift search, and delivered. After it was rumored that Chad Morris viewed Louisville as a ‘good start,’ and that Vance Bedford was just as eager to pursue being Strong’s defensive coordinator at Texas as he was to lead Louisville into the ACC, the candidates dwindled. Louisville fans would find it hard to dislike Charlie Strong, but they were eager to maintain their current success. Where could Louisville turn to maintain its Florida recruiting pipeline? Was Derek Mason ready to be a head coach, or was he too on the ‘stepping stone’ trajectory of Charlie Strong? Was Mason more comfortable on the West Coast? Who has knowledge of the Louisville culture? Who would excite the fan base and make sure that Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium is packed every Saturday? Could Shawn Watson possibly build a coaching staff and recruit to the standards set by Strong? Was Jennifer Lawrence available to wear the headset on Saturdays? Some of the best stories write themselves. Not out of convenience or necessity, but just plain serendipity. A large contingent of Louisville fans had always felt an affinity toward Petrino, and had always said that he’d be welcome back (his kids are students at UofL). That day has come. Bobby Petrino was the one name that stood out on Tom Jurich’s list. Tom Jurich wanted Petrino, and Petrino wanted Louisville.
Since You’ve Been Gone, I’ve Been In a Trance…This Heart Needs a Second Chance
We will never know what was said between Tom Jurich and Bobby Petrino, but it was enough for the most well-respected athletic director in amateur sports to put his reputation, and the reputation of the University of Louisville, on the line because he believes that Bobby Petrino is not the same man who made a hobby out of flirting with every open coaching position. He isn’t the same man who crashed that motorcycle with the female student (not his wife…) riding on the back. Bobby Petrino is again the coach at UofL because he has convinced Tom Jurich that he can be trusted. That time, experience, and personal hell are the catalysts for immense inner change. Humans make mistakes, and no one is perfect. Perfect is boring. Perfect leaves no room for narrative. Bobby Petrino is a person who may be farther from perfect than most, but who (at least on the surface) is working very hard to repair his image and his life both on and off the football field.
On the surface, this is the ultimate gamble for a man known to make very calculated coaching hires. Beyond what will lie in initial media reactions and the moral majority’s faux outrage, this is a story steeped in both redemption and familiarity. A decision which I publicly lamented at first when rumors of its possibility began to swirl now seems like the best fit going forward. Mind you, it will still take time for me to fully accept this hire…but I understand it. When you need a football coach, you go get a football coach. Bobby Petrino is not your ex whom you mistakenly drunk-dialed at 2am and are now stuck with until he ditches you again for the Surgically-Enhanced Chick (strategic capitalization is a hobby of mine). Bobby Petrino is the really attractive jock who flirted with everyone but hung out with you the most. You had some really good times on South Beach…but he moved on leaving you confused as to where your relationship really stood. Now, seven years later, he sees you for what you’re worth and that mutual attraction will lead to white picket fences and a bunch of kids who can play the piano and don’t need you to live vicariously through their little league games.
I’m reaching a bit there, aren’t I? Sorry about that…
Bottom line is Petrino is a worthy risk. That’s apparent to me now. It was obvious that Western Kentucky was a reputation rehab spot. If no one wanted to bite on him, Petrino would quietly come to dominate the Sun Belt conference while making a comfortable living in small-town Bowling Green. But instead, here he is. He’s wearing Cardinal red and black again. This may be the biggest gamble Jurich could make, but if ever there were a ‘strategic wager,’ this is it. Jurich is a believer in second chances. He’s been a champion of allowing humans to do very human-like things and then make up for them and find success. For every Willie Williams there are two Nate Harris’. There is Darius Ashley, who found out the hard way that he had a problem but was allowed a second chance to make his life better. Ask him how that worked out. There is Rick Pitino. Mistakes are inherently human, but instead of kicking people while they are down…Tom Jurich and the University of Louisville have shown time after time that often the best course of action is to allow people who are at their very lowest point to redeem themselves. I mentioned Pitino. If not for second chances, The Michigan Wolverines more than likely would be defending basketball National Champions. Not the Louisville Cardinals. Perspective can be sobering.
Jurich can slant Petrino’s contract in Louisville’s favor. He can backload it with incentives and bonuses which benefit longevity. He can, in a sense, take the ultimate stepping stone stepper, and make it mutually beneficial for him to complete a long-term arrangement. Bobby Petrino has no leverage. Bobby Petrino personifies ‘leverage.’ In what could turn out to be the biggest football paradox imaginable, Jurich could get his destination hire by choosing to invite back his famously infamous wandering coach. Jurich can control how Petrino deals with his players in the classroom, and make it financially beneficial for him to make sure his players not only go to class…but graduate. There wouldn’t be a need for an up-and-coming assistant or coordinator if Bobby Petrino could come in, do the right things, and just coach his ass off. Speaking of doing the right things; Tom Jurich could also ensure that any malfeasance on the part of Bobby Petrino would spell certain disaster for a coaching career that’s on life support and is being read its last rites. However, with the correctly-structured contract, the University of Louisville could finally be a ‘big enough’ name for Bobby.
The Atlantic Coast Conference.
A guaranteed spot in the four-team playoff which replaces the BCS next year.
Ridiculous TV money.
The ability to bask in the football limelight which he so passionately desired.
In a business where Charlie Strong can look at his players, recruits, fans, and the man who gave him his first head coaching opportunity and say: “you can buy a man a lot, but you can’t buy his heart. My heart…and my enthusiasm are with the University of Louisv…oh never mind, hook ‘em Horns,’ it’s obvious that most every job is a stepping stone for another. There is no such thing as loyalty when money is involved. There is no honor amongst thieves. It may come to be that in this soulless, cutthroat industry, it took the soulless, cutthroat journeyman to complete the journey for UofL. If Petrino gives Louisville five years and then bolts to the Surgically-Enhanced Chick…fool me twice, shame on me. The gamble is believing that he will not only stay, but that if he DOES leave again that he won’t make the mistake of short-sighted recruiting and that the stable will be full for Jurich’s next homerun hire. If Tom Jurich makes the mistake of trusting Bobby Petrino, he definitely won’t follow it with another Kragthorpian swing-and-miss. Replace and Reload. It’s almost win-win. Almost. There’s always risk. But just like football…that’s why they play the game.
Let’s Get Paid Cause I Stay Ready for it Please. And You is Crazy if you Think You Ready For Me
Bobby Petrino is back. And when Miami walks into Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium to start Louisville’s inaugural ACC season…there are going to be some well-fed studs wearing red and black. Football will be exciting. There will be points. All of those fond memories from almost a decade ago will return in the form of present glory. Past transgressions will be forgiven. There are fun times ahead, and great teams coming to ‘The Oven.’ Leading the Cardinals onto the field to ‘O Fortuna’ will be a changed man on a mission to prove himself once again at the place where he was made famous. Life lessons learned through personal tragedy and humiliation will manifest into a story of redemption and success at a place where he’ll coach for many years to come.
At least we hope.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
I do know that I’ll still be the same fan that sat behind that column at Old Cardinal Stadium and fell in love with Louisville football. I’ll be at every game. I will support my alma mater. Tom Jurich has never given me a reason not to.