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January 14, 2014

On Strong and Petrino

The recent exit of University of Louisville football coach Charlie Strong and re-entry of prodigal son Bobby Petrino created understandable controversy. Reviews have certainly been mixed. Sports Illustrated painted Petrino’s hire as almost demonic. Antithetically, Forbes saw it as brilliant. There is little I can say on the subject that’s new. But, as a columnist, U of L professor and admitted sports junkie, I’ll try to dispassionately summarize some of the major issues and give my take on them in my limited space here.

Yes, money matters, but Many argue that rehiring Petrino sends the message that Louisville is “just about money.” Well, yes and no. Anyone who thinks high-revenue athletics are the only entities at major universities that have a “money” aspect to them is a bit naïve. In reality, universities make decisions every day outside athletics driven by the “bottom line.” As a department chair, I would answer the questions this way: Is money the only consideration for people in leadership at major universities? No. But, is it always a consideration? Yes. It’s the burden we bear. Welcome to the world of American business.

Talent trumps treachery The more talented, productive or attractive you are, the more chances you get. Like him or not, Petrino is a talented football coach. Despite his failings, this gives him leverage. He’s not alone. Pretty women get away with more than less attractive ones. Successful men get away with more than bums. Neither coaches nor professors are allowed to stay at major universities just because they’re nice to the kids. If that were the case, Ron Cooper or Steve Kragthorpe would still be coaching at Louisville, and many of my former colleagues on the academic side who couldn’t publish would still be colleagues. They’re not, because that’s not the real world. Ironically, at the end of the day, Louisville probably ended up with a more talented coach than Texas. Time will tell. 

Charlie Strong is “more loyal” than Bobby Petrino Actually, that argument’s center doesn’t hold. People get upset when they get left. So yes, Louisville fans weren’t happy when Bobby Petrino bolted for the Atlanta Falcons in 2007. The Falcons weren’t happy when he exited for Arkansas later that same year. Admittedly, Petrino was a nomadic, opportunistic mercenary. Outside of supposedly being a bit more upfront with his boss, Charlie Strong is no different — he’s a climber, too.

Let’s not forget that before Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich gave him a shot, Strong was a career-long assistant coach who no one would give the reins. After a couple of good seasons at Louisville, Strong was like the homely girl who blossomed into a beauty over the summer. He was suddenly popular, and he loved it. Just last year, Strong had one foot out the door for Tennessee before an 11th hour pay hike from Louisville. He pledged his “loyalty” and “love” only to grin and throw up the “Hook ’em Horns” sign in Texas less than a year later. And let’s not forget that he may have been honest with Jurich, but he lied to at least one U of L recruit on his way out the escape hatch, telling him he was staying put.

Do I blame Strong? No. He did what he thought was best for him — just as Petrino has done professionally. And all the talk of Strong “cleaning up the program” and “graduating kids” is overstated as well. Remember, he was at Louisville for only four years. That means he ushered a grand total of one class from freshman to senior year. That’s reality. 

Infidelity matters in cases like this No, it doesn’t. It didn’t matter to me with Kennedy, Clinton or Dwayne Wade, and it doesn’t matter to me with Petrino. That’s for him and his wife to work out. In a country where the divorce rate is approaching 60 percent, they’re still together. Some judgmental folks on this should really spend more time worrying about their own relationships. Enough said.

Finally, I gravitate toward people who have fallen and have to fight their way back. In the end, they’re often better people because of it. Kudos to Tom Jurich for giving Bobby P. a chance to do just that. Let’s hope he doesn’t blow it. As my grandmother said, “We’re all in need of too much forgiveness not to grant it to others.” So, I’m pulling for you, Bobby. Go get ’em!

Let me know your thoughts on email, Facebook or Twitter (@DrRickyLJones).