LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bobby Petrino is back for a second stint as Louisville’s football coach, returning to the school he calls home. And Louisville’s athletic director insists the school is getting a “changed person.”
Petrino coached Western Kentucky to an 8-4 record last season in his only year with the team. He led the Cardinals to a 41-9 mark from 2003-06. He succeeds Charlie Strong, who left last weekend after four years to accept the Texas job.
“It’s great to get the opportunity to come back here,” Petrino said during a news conference Thursday. “This is our home.”
Petrino inherits a team coming off a 12-1 finish and gearing up to join the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.
He received a seven-year contract with a base annual salary of $3.5 million. It includes a $10 million buyout for leaving that decreases after four years. But the well-traveled coach said that will not be necessary because this is his “destination job.”
Petrino is 83-30 as a college coach. His record includes a 34-17 mark at Arkansas that ended amid scandal in April 2012. He came to the Razorbacks after a 3-10 season in 2007 with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons that ended with the coach announcing his departure by letters left at the players’ lockers.
Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart said in a statement the Cardinals made a “tremendous hire” and wished Petrino well. Though Petrino had been mentioned for the Louisville job almost from the moment Strong left for the Longhorns, the coach said he became aware of the opening only after Cardinals athletic director Tom Jurich approached Stewart for permission to interview him.
Jurich said he was angry at Petrino early in the Tuesday interview because of the coach’s demeanor in his previous Louisville stint, one that included player disciplinary issues. The AD also said he was mad at Petrino for leaving after a BCS Orange Bowl win for the Falcons, though he acknowledged the coach was honest in expressing his interest in the job.
On Sunday, Jurich acknowledged he and Petrino had previously resolved their differences. But he wanted to see if the coach had truly changed as he has professed since Arkansas fired him for “a pattern of misleading behavior” following a motorcycle accident in which he revealed his mistress was a passenger.
Jurich came away convinced he was getting a different man from the one who left, reinforcing his belief that Petrino was the right fit for the Cardinals.
“If it was the same Bobby that was here 10 years, I wasn’t interested,” said Jurich, adding that he kept coming back to Petrino as he went through a list of seven finalists. “He is definitely a changed person.”
Petrino’s critics have nonetheless remained skeptical about his commitment for bolting three programs in eight years, including his infamous exit from Atlanta that upset many players. Public sentiment differed, with overwhelming support for Petrino’s hiring on sports talk radio, online polls and social media.
Petrino has been contrite since the embarrassing matter and reiterated Thursday he has been humbled by his experiences. Asked how he would quell skepticism, Petrino said, “the thing you do is just show (it). I have a sign in the locker room that says it’s a ‘show-me’ world.”
Petrino added, “I made mistakes, both professionally and personally. That’s something I’m not going to do again. … My first mistake was leaving here.”
Louisville’s hiring of the offense-minded Petrino excited Cardinals players, such as leading rusher Dominique Brown, because of the potential of maintaining a high-powered unit Strong left behind. He acknowledged there was skepticism about his commitment but said those doubts disappeared after the coach met with players.
“There were a couple of on the fence, but now all the players are convinced,” Brown said. “We knew what we had while he was here, a top-10 offense. He had a good track record while he was here. I knew he liked to use big backs like Michael Bush. I was kind of worried, but now we are all convinced.”