As many jobs as Bobby Petrino has had – and he has had many, though not as many as Brian VanGorder – it was easy to read of his firing and think, “So what else is new?” But this was technically the first time Petrino has been fired for losing. Not losing was the reason, for all his foibles, people kept hiring him.
Louisville might have fired him in 2003 for interviewing for the Auburn job that wasn’t open. It kept him for three seasons more, and in 2006 it came within a second-half fade at Rutgers of playing for the BCS championship. The Atlanta Falcons never got around to firing him, seeing as how he split for the Ozarks after 13 games. Arkansas did fire him, but that was for falling off his motorcycle while accompanied by a woman who wasn’t his wife. The woman was, ahem, a special friend Petrino had hired to work in the football office.
Such a spectacle might have rendered a coach toxic. Rule of thumb: You’re only toxic if you lose. Petrino, coming off 10- and 11-win seasons, was fired by the Hogs in April 2012. By 2013 he was Western Kentucky’s head coach. The next year he was back at Louisville, hired by the same athletic director who’d hired him the first time. Tom Jurich was given the gate last September in the wake of the Rick Pitino/Brian Bowen/adidas revelations, leaving Bobby P. without his longtime sponsor.
Then he was left without his Heisman-winning quarterback. Minus Lamar Jackson, the Cardinals stood revealed as a house of cards. They lost their opener 51-14 to Alabama, which turned out to be one of their better showings. Petrino threw away a game by having his team – leading by a field goal with a first down at the Florida State 21-yard line inside the final two minutes – throw a pass, which was intercepted. FSU, which has issues of its own, completed a 58-yard touchdown fling to win.
Matters could scarcely have gotten worse. Somehow they did. Louisville lost at home to Georgia Tech as the aforementioned VanGorder saw his defense stop Paul Johnson’s offense only on the game’s final drive, by which time the Yellow Jackets led 66-31. The same defense yielded 56 points to Wake Forest, 77 to Clemson and, last Friday, 54 to Syracuse. Petrino was fired Sunday.
A year ago, Louisville had beaten Syracuse 56-10. Said athletic director Vince Tyra: “I don’t think our talent slipped that far down and theirs slipped that far up ... If you want to say culture equals effort, there’s something screwy going on there.”
(Part of Louisville’s thinking surely involves Jeff Brohm, who played at Louisville and who worked at U of L and Western Kentucky under Petrino. He’s now at Purdue, having been hired by the former Georgia Tech AD Mike Bobinski. After starting 0-3, the Boilermakers have beaten Boston College, Ohio State — by 29 points! — and Iowa. One question, though: Is Louisville the best offer Brohm is apt to get?)
This marked the second coach in six years to have gotten fired with the peripatetic BVG as defensive coordinator. Gene Chizik was the first, having been axed at Auburn two years after winning the BCS title. (VanGorder had no role in that; he was coordinating Mike Smith’s Falcons defense.) The same BVG came close to taking down Brian Kelly at Notre Dame two years ago, but Kelly dumped his DC after a September that saw the Irish yield 50 points to Texas, 36 to Michigan State and 38 to Duke. Today Notre Dame is ranked No. 3 by the College Football Playoff committee.
Back to Petrino. As esteemed former colleague Mark Schlabach, now of ESPN, noted: Louisville also dumped three members of Petrino’s staff, all of whom were related to the head coach. One was Petrino’s son; the other two were sons-in-law. In the history of sports, has hiring within the family ever brought a happy outcome? (Hold on a second. I believe that’s Jim Harrick on Line 1.)
I’d say it will be difficult for Petrino to land another head coaching job at a Power 5 school, but I’d have said the same about VanGorder getting hired to run another major-college defense, and that keeps happening. (Though I’m thinking it mightn’t happen again.) If Petrino has indeed sunk to the level of toxic, it’s not because he’s a bad guy; it’s because he has also become a bad coach.
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