On Jan. 7 in Miami, Brian Kelly leads Notre Dame into the BCS championship game to face Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide. On Nov. 10 in El Paso, George O’Leary’s UCF Golden Knights scored a fourth quarter to upend Mike Price’s UTEP Miners. Two games could not have had less in common, yet share a place in the college football universe.
O’Leary was hired at Notre Dame 2004, Price at Alabama the year before. Each was fired before coaching a game. Their exits indirectly led to the hires of Saban and Kelly. O’Leary and Price found refuge with their Conference USA programs, but neither reclaimed the places at the pinnacle of the sport they vacated under dubious circumstances.
Western Kentucky created quite a stir with its hire of Bobby Petrino on Monday. Petrino spent all of eight months unemployed before getting his latest shot at redemption, which is only slightly less than the time he’ll spend as Hilltopper head coach.
At least, that’s a refrain you can expect to hear and read for the next few weeks. Coaches ousted from big time programs who land on the misfit island that is non-AQ tend to stay there. There are those coaches mired in scandal, like O’Leary and Price. Others, like Frank Solich, didn’t win enough to placate the taskmasters of their major program home yet discovered a home to play out their coaching careers. It’s difficult for a coach whose been at the high stakes table and cashed out to get back there.
Maybe Petrino becomes the exception. His resume is one of the most impressive among active coaches, with BCS appearances at two different programs. For every observer concerned with the ethical implications of a school hiring Petrino in the same year he hired his mistress to a university job, there were those supporting his return to the SEC. Petrino was reported expressing interest in various openings over the last few weeks, suggesting Western Kentucky isn’t exactly his dream job.
Chad Bishop of The Bowling Green Daily News was all over this story, and he tweeted the following:
Petrino dodges question about long-term future. “You never know what the future holds. We hope to be here as long as possible.”
— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) December 10, 2012
The noncommittal commitment.
He’s shown a proclivity for changing jobs, leaving Louisville six months after signing a 10-year contract to take “the best job in the NFL” with the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta might have been the best job in the NFL, but it wasn’t alluring enough to keep him for more than 11 months when he accepted the Arkansas vacancy.
Coaches shouldn’t be begrudged for accepting better opportunities. Most any profession outside of sports commends the pursuit of greater challenges, higher salary and more prestige. Only coaches and athletes are labeled as weasels for improving their lot. That said, there are proper ways of moving on; a letter left in players’ lockers with the job not finished isn’t it.
Arkansas knew there was a gamble in hiring Petrino, and initially it paid off. The thing about gambling though, is the longer one plays, the more likely one is to lose out.
Western Kentucky may be paying a high moral price on a Petrino rental, even if the monetary price is relatively low. His contract is reportedly four years, with a base salary of $850,000. WKU doubled down with the clause Petrino must pay $1.2 million should he void his contract, Bishop reported.
Stewart Mandel laments WKU athletic brass placing winning above character. There can be no doubt Petrino was hired for his 75-26 more than he was his public promises to make amends.
Maybe Petrino was genuine. When his scandal broke in the spring, I wrote that sometimes people need to hit rock bottom. Faced with losing a family is about as close to rock bottom as one can get. I also believe in second chances, because humans are inherently imperfect. I’m just surprised the brevity with which Petrino’s next chance is coming.
The repercussions of his hubris are still fresh. Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson’s emotionally charged speech after the Razorbacks were blown out by Alabama was a reminder of just how much Petrino let down the young men he was tasked with leading. Wilson was a senior; he’ll never get that opportunity to chase an SEC championship back.
Wilson hasn’t and probably never will blame Petrino. And another former Petrino quarterback, Brian Brohm, tweeted his support.
WKU couldn’t have had a better hire than Bobby Petrino.He will have them playing at a high level and in the top 25 before you know it.
— Brian Brohm (@BrianBrohm) December 11, 2012
The landscape of college football is such that a lower tier program like Western Kentucky comes to the table with much less of a bankroll. Fledgling FBS member WKU gained a taste for winning under Willie Taggart, after winless seasons in the move from FCS. I would have rather seen the university tab a young, up-and-coming assistant or a coach who has won with integrity at the FCS level. But in another sense, I get it. Would such a hire have drawn the national attention paid to the Hilltoppers? It may be negative, but you know what they say about bad attention.
Attention can be fleeting, though. Is this the step back to national relevance for Petrino, or the beginning of a long road to November games played in obscurity?