America has always been a nation of second chances. American sports, since it is nothing more than a subset of American society, is no different. Whether you’re Josh Hamilton or Michael Vick, so long as you’re playing at a high level and not incarcerated, there’s generally a team out there willing to give you a chance.
So it comes as no surprise that disgraced former Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino is now back in coaching; the biggest surprise is that perhaps a bigger program that Western Kentucky didn’t come calling first, though I suspect that had Petrino sat out another fall (the so-called “motorcycle crash” which exposed his extramarital affair only happened eight months ago) then maybe the dust would have settled long enough for a BCS team to come calling. In any case, Petrino will re-acclimate himself far away from the white-hot spotlight of a Top 25 program, which is probably good in some ways and bad in others.
Of course, Petrino’s hire is going to bring some attention to the WKU campus that it won’t normally get; that happens when the coach you hire wins 75 percent of his games. He went 10-3 at Arkansas in 2010 and 11-2 last year, and the Razorbacks went just 4-8 without him this year. If WKU wanted a guy to continue the good momentum from a 7-5 season into its bowl game as well as next season, it definitely found the right guy for the short term.
Unfortunately, Western could have never dreamed of hiring such a coach except for the fact that Petrino comes with enormous baggage; Louisville signed him to a huge contract in the middle part of last decade and Petrino, at the same time swearing loyalty to U of L, interviewed for other jobs for five consecutive years. Petrino finally left to coach the Atlanta Falcons after that last year, then left the Falcons for Arkansas before his first season was even finished. Then, of course, came the end of his Arkansas career – fittingly, Petrino’s undoing was cemented when he lied to his boss about the incident that preceded his firing.
The risk-reward scales for WKU are weighted heavily on each side, for obvious reasons. Whether WKU made the right move or not, only one man knows – and that’s Petrino himself.
So far, Petrino’s done put the right foot forward, admitting his mistakes in an emotional interview with ESPN over the summer. Skeptics have said it was for show, but the truth is there’s no way for you or I to know. I hope he’s sincere; no human should ever hope to see another fail as spectacularly as Petrino did, especially when it involves a wife and kids.
I hope for Petrino that the incident that led to his firing has resolved him to be a more honest man; Petrino’s deception about a deception that he was trying to cover up was his undoing. That, along with everything else, reveals that he’s been a chronically-dishonest man – a man who continued to get away with it solely because he won football games up until the bitter end of his Arkansas tenure. People like Petrino usually don’t change until there are consequences for actions. Losing a $3.56 million-per-year contract with six years remaining, having to face an upset wife, and being humiliated in front of tens of millions of people ought to be enough to get Petrino’s attention.
Let’s be clear: Petrino is only getting another chance because he’s great at what he does; many lesser coaches with far better character are unemployed right now. Petrino’s been able to get by until now because he’s been so spectacularly good at what he does, but we each get only so many chances, and Petrino could well be down to his last one. Hamilton made the Reds and the Rangers grateful that they took a chance, and Vick did the same with the Eagles.
But the only reason both worked out was because of a genuine repentance and humility on the part of each. I suspect that each knew that they couldn’t blow it one more time.
Let’s hope Petrino feels the same.