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Petrino Leaves Mixed Legacy at Louisville

By Dave Holcomb
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Petrino's lasting legacy with the Cardinals leaves a ridiculously muddled range of emotions.

In 2018, the Louisville Cardinals have taken the cliche “what a difference a year makes” to a whole new level. After several years of high-level football, the Cardinals are off to their worst start since 1997.

The Louisville football product got so bad over the last few weeks that coach Bobby Petrino’s job became in jeopardy. Athletic Director Vince Tyra had no choice but to fire coach Bobby Petrino despite the fact the university still owes him $14 million. The only question was when it’d happen.

The answer to that question proved to be Sunday.

Tyra didn’t give Petrino the opportunity to finish the season, but who can blame him. Petrino’s Cardinals own a 2-8 record and have been outscored, 187-74, in the last three games.

Anytime a football program goes through a coaching change, it’s the dawn of a new era. For Louisville, Petrino’s firing also signifies a much-needed end to Louisville’s sleazy athletic department.

Petrino was the last significant strand connected to previous athletic director Tom Jurich, who made a tremendous amount of money for Louisville and led the university into the Big East and eventually the ACC. As the gap widens between the Power 5 and Group 5 schools each year, that accomplishment (Jurich getting Louisville in the ACC) grows every year too.

But Jurich also left Louisville in shame — fired amidst a basketball recruiting scandal with Rick Pitino, who Jurich adamantly defended last fall despite overwhelming evidence and previous strikes against Pitino’s reputation.

Petrino wasn’t involved in that scandal, but his moral integrity had already been lost years ago. Remember, Petrino departed the Atlanta Falcons to accept the Arkansas Razorbacks head coaching job in the middle of the 2007 season, leaving behind just a note, explaining his departure was the best decision for his family.

Sadly, that wasn’t the low point of his career. That would be lying about the fact his mistress, who was a student-athlete development coordinator on his staff, was on his motorcycle during an accident in 2012. Days after discovering that, Arkansas fired him.

For some reason, Jurich still wanted him back coaching at Louisville. In retrospect, it’s just another example of how Jurich put money and winning ahead of anything else.

Making matters worse, Jurich signed Petrino to a contract that guaranteed the coach to be paid the next three years of his contract should he be fired. That means if Tyra had allowed Petrino another season to try and dig out of this mess, his buyout would have only gotten more expensive.

Similar to Jurich, though, Petrino’s legacy at Louisville will be filled with several high and low moments. In his second stint, Petrino turned the Cardinals into a playoff contender.

On Oct. 1, 2016, Louisville came within a few yards of beating the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers, and last September, Louisville hosted ESPN’s College GameDay for the rematch.

The 2016 season didn’t finish with a playoff berth for the Cardinals, but it did end with quarterback Lamar Jackson winning the Heisman Trophy. He became the first college quarterback ever to record back-to-back seasons with 3,000 passing and 1,000 rushing yards.

In three seasons at Louisville, Jackson accounted for 119 total touchdowns, which was the second-most ever in ACC history.

That recent what makes Louisville’s fall from grace so shocking. Jackson didn’t win the Heisman Trophy a decade ago -- it was 23 months ago. Jackson came from Florida, and his success at Louisville was expected to create new inroads for Louisville recruiting in the Sunshine State.

Yet, Louisville’s football program has fallen as quickly as it rose. They’ve lost 16 of their last 26 games. In many ways, the Cardinals haven’t been the same since coming up just short at Clemson in 2016.

And this could be just the tip of the iceberg.

The Jackson effect in Florida or recruiting anywhere never came to fruition. Following his Heisman Trophy, Louisville finished sixth in recruiting in the ACC. Last season, the Cardinals’ 2018 class came in ranked at No. 7 in the conference, and currently, they are second-to-last for 2019.

As is the case with just about any company, universities will take on bad publicity for a coach that’s going to win. But when the winning stops, all bets are off.

At Louisville, that’s true for anybody in Petrino’s family. Petrino inexplicably hired his son, Nick, and two son-in-laws to his coaching staff. All three, plus Petrino’s right-hand man, operations director Andy Wagner, were also fired this week.

Talk about cleaning house.

In the end, though, Louisville will be better for it. With 77 victories, Petrino may leave as the winningest coach in Louisville football history, but the Cardinals can now say good-bye to the final degenerate in its athletic program.