Petrino owes second chance to AD

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Tom Jurich could have ignored the phone call. He could have ignored the man looking for a little bit of salvation.

Nobody would have blamed him if he had. Jurich owed Bobby Petrino absolutely nothing. Not after Petrino turned and walked away from Louisville the way that he did -- jarring Jurich and the football program for years to come.

Instead, Jurich picked up the phone and listened to Petrino on the other end. Petrino wanted to meet face-to-face following a scandal at Arkansas that cost him his job and very nearly his marriage and family.

Jurich agreed, but with a warning.

"You're probably not going to like what you hear," Jurich told him.

Petrino understood. He drove all night from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Louisville, Kentucky, a miserable 600 miles through the darkness that had become his life. When he arrived, they talked for more than three hours. Not one word was spent on football.

They talked about life, family and mistakes. They talked about humility, and they talked about God. They talked about how to change. But the resounding piece of advice Jurich gave Petrino: "Your best friend or your worst enemy is that mirror. Get in front of it."

Unbeknownst to either of them, that 2012 phone call set the groundwork for where the two stand today. Reunited at Louisville and ready to take the Cardinals into their first year in the ACC, their relationship is the most important in the entire country between athletic director and head football coach.

Without that phone call, Jurich says he would have never rehired Petrino when Charlie Strong left for Texas after the past season. Without that phone call, there would have been no way to repair their fractured friendship, no way to truly know whether Petrino was committed to changing.

After their meeting, it took a year for Petrino to convince Jurich to trust him again. It took another year of quiet observation for Jurich to feel comfortable enough to make the decision to bring Petrino back -- a decision widely criticized in January.

Still, today, outside skepticism remains. On the surface, this looks like a marriage of convenience: Jurich needed a top-notch coach to lead his program into a tougher conference; Petrino needed a familiar spot in a good conference to begin repairing his image.

But Jurich has spent two years getting to know the new Petrino. The idea that Petrino has somehow changed is hard for the average college football fan to understand, given all the missteps he has made along the way.

Jurich knows there are people who doubt him and critics who cannot fathom why one of the most respected administrators in the country would take a risk on a coach who has burned him in the past. But Jurich believes he took no such risk. He is adamant that he hired a new man.

His reputation is riding on that bit of faith few others possess.

"I would never have a great relationship with Bobby if he wasn't a changed person because I don't live my life that way," Jurich said. "I want to be around people who are good human beings and have their priorities straight. And I know he's got his priorities straight now. That's the scary thing about it. He's taking all these shots from people trying to pile on, and pretty soon they're going to have to play him."

Jurich and Petrino first met in the late 1980s when both were working at schools out west. It was not until Jurich hired John L. Smith to coach Louisville in 1998 that he and Petrino began working together. Petrino came on board as offensive coordinator to help turn around a program Jurich says was hemorrhaging.

Louisville lost its first two games that season. Jurich thought the Cardinals would go winless. Smith told him they would win. Jurich just figured Smith was being confident because he had to be, but then the Cardinals thrashed Boston College 52-28 with more than 400 yards by halftime. Jurich stood in the corner of the end zone with Louisville alum Tom Jackson and stared in amazement at the offensive explosion.

He knew whom he would hire the next time he needed a head coach.

When Smith left for Michigan State following the 2002 season, Jurich hired Petrino.

The old Petrino.

In four years, Petrino took Louisville to new heights, including a BCS berth in the 2007 Orange Bowl. But Petrino never seemed satisfied with what he had. During his first tenure, he had interviews with Auburn, LSU and the Oakland Raiders. Jurich says Petrino never pursued those opportunities; those programs came after his coach. He recalled seeing a signed contract from Raiders owner Al Davis for five years, $25 million.

Petrino turned it down. But he could not turn down the Atlanta Falcons after the 2006 season. Jurich, believing he had a coach for life, was upset and disappointed. The two spoke only a handful of times between then and 2012, when Petrino looked to Jurich for a lifeline.

He had just been fired at Arkansas after a motorcycle accident revealed not only that Petrino had been carrying on an affair but also that he had hired his mistress to work for him in the football office. Athletic director Jeff Long accused Petrino of deliberately misleading him about his extramarital relationship and why he played favorites in hiring her.

"It's well-documented what type of person he was back then," Jurich said. "He was focused on one thing and one thing only. That's why I'm so impressed with him now -- the person he has become through all of this."

Following their meeting in 2012, Jurich and Petrino stayed in close contact. When Petrino was hired at Western Kentucky for the 2013 season, the two grew closer. Petrino would call with good-luck wishes before big games and constantly sang the praises of Strong and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

When Strong left for Texas, the new Petrino was open and honest with Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart and called to say he was interested in pursuing the Louisville job.

"He said, 'Yeah I knew that,'" Petrino said recently at the ACC Kickoff. "When we decided as a family to go to Western Kentucky, one of the reasons we went there was to get back closer to Louisville. That's where I consider home to be."

Jurich was on vacation in Colorado when Strong decided to leave, which caught Jurich completely off guard. He made up a list of seven potential candidates. Petrino was on the list but not at the top.

"What I had to do is really pare it down, and the school trusts me, so that's even more pressure because I want to make sure I got everything right," Jurich said. "I love this place. There's never a time I'm ever going to put this place in harm's way. I needed somebody that was going to put their heart and soul into this program and take it to a different level because we're going to a different level, and there was no doubt in my mind that Bobby would be that man. At the end of the day, I said he's the best football coach. He's a changed man, and he has not disappointed at all."

So far, Petrino has done all the right things and said all the right things in his second stint as coach. He has continually praised Jurich and Louisville itself and recently established the Petrino Family Foundation that has donated more than $1 million to charity. He also has caddied for his daughter, Katie, a golfer at Louisville.

His players have been impressed, too. Generally, when coaching changes are made, roster attrition follows. Louisville has lost no major contributors since Petrino came on.

One of his players, receiver DeVante Parker, even called him "nice." That is probably not an adjective anybody expects to hear next to Petrino's name, but perhaps it is a sign he has mellowed -- off the field, anyway.

Even those who do not believe Petrino has earned the benefit of the doubt have to admit Jurich has. Of the four previous football coaching hires he has made, three have gone on to bigger jobs. Four years ago, nobody wanted to hire Strong. Jurich did, and now Strong is a $25 million coach at Texas. Although it's true Strong did not have the same type of baggage, Jurich made a bold hire then, as he's made a bold hire now. Petrino's ability to show he's a changed man will reflect as much on Jurich as it will on him.

"Hiring him back is the best move Louisville could have made," said Harry Douglas, who played for Petrino at Louisville from 2004 to 2006. "No matter what anybody else says, I played for him, and I know the kind of coach he is, and I know how he can get the best out of his players."

But his football acumen is not in question. He might have convinced Jurich and his supporters in Louisville, but Petrino still has work to do to convince all the other skeptics. "I need to prove to myself and everybody else on a daily basis that this is the right decision," he said.

We will know soon enough.

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