Photos by Cindy Rice Shelton
Worst than a nightmare, this was real.
At long last, the college football season from Hell is over. A sorry exercise in futility for the University of Louisville. An ugly setback for a program that had advanced so far in two decades, only to plummet to possibly the lowest depths in the school’s history.
No semblance of organization, expectations or optimism from the opening three-and-out series against Alabama until the fifth straight incomplete pass against Kentucky. Never any indication that UofL would get any better under Coach Bobby Petrino or his interim replacement.
As the season began, UofL was expected to compete against the likes of Alabama, the defending national champion. Why? Because Petrino said so, said Louisville’s offense was going to be even better without Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. Confidently declared that UofL was going to beat Alabama at the kickoff luncheon.
Looking back one should have known better than to take Petrino seriously. There was a reason that he never opened any practices to the public for the first time at fall camp. Already skeptical perhaps about the abilities of some of the people working for him. Come game time, it quickly became apparent in games against Indiana State and Western Kentucky that UofL was struggling with many of the basics.
Still UofL seemed assured of a third straight win over traditional power Florida State in the fifth game, owning the ball on the FSU 19-yard line with 1:56 to go. Owning a three-point lead, needing to maintain possession with less than two minutes. Pitino sending in a pass play, but Puma Pass throwing the ball to an FSU defender, and FSU scoring two plays later for the win. Many blaming the loss on Petrino.
The dysfunction in the Cardinal ranks became so chaotic that Athletic Director Vince Tyra had no choice but to fire Petrino after 10 games. The cancer had to be exorcised, whether there was anyone qualified to replace him. The players were ignoring him, the assistant coaches had lost touch and the fans were despondent. Go Bobby, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Petrino 2.0 had everything a coach could ask for, including some of the finest facilities in college football, with an expansion modeled after the Dallas Cowboys stadium. He had a team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, with an opportunity to compete for a national championship. He had a fan base setting attendance records at Cardinal Stadium over the last four seasons. His reputation as an offensive genius compelled former UofL AD Tom Jurich to rehire him — despite his awkward departure the first time around and the ugly mess he left at Arkansas.
What Petrino didn’t have was an ability to relate to other people, including his assistant coaches and players. He was Petrino first, callous forever, with no loyalty to Louisville. He was desperate for the job, returning on bended knee, asking for forgiveness and a second chance from Tom Jurich. He would inevitably make Jurich look silly a second time, landing a deal with an enormous buyout. No sweat for Petrino, riding off into the sunset with a $14 million buyout.
Jurich could have saved the school a lot of money, but he believed Petrino could lead UofL to the promised land. The exorbitant salary and a contract with an unbelievable escape clause may have played a pivotal role in Petrino’s downfall. He was going to be filthy rich no matter whether the football program succeeded or failed. Somewhere along the line he lost his hunger and the respect of his colleagues. Maybe he wanted to get out before risking his winning ways against Kentucky.
Some say he led Louisville football to new heights to places previously unimaginable for UofL football, winning a BCS bowl game and numerous appearances in the top 10 college football polls. He couldn’t sustain it, however, couldn’t conceal the character flaws from his associates and players, losing their trust and confidence, and ultimately his job.
Before he finally left, Petrino had dug a hole for Louisville so deep it could take years for the program to recover. Many UofL fans, including this one, still shaking their heads in disbelief about how bad it is really was. Somewhere Tom Jurich is still in shock, having entrusted his reputation with a person he believed to be the best football coach in the nation.
A sorry ending. What a mess.