Every time I meet a football coach who is a halfway recognizable normal human being, I find it's sort of a miracle.
What a strange job this is. You are a manager, a boss, but not of employees who are doing a similar job to yours, working their way up the chain. Your power is supposed to be respected absolutely, like you are an actual military commander, even though no one has the discipline and institutional dedication to a larger cause that the military does. (Sports teams are an ongoing war metaphor in search of a war, and everyone gets paid so much more than they do in the military, except in college, where they get paid nothing. It's all terribly difficult to keep straight.) The primary focus of your job is to motivate people at the exact age when they are most difficult to motivate, to convince them that the task they are doing -- which really isn't all that important -- is the most important thing that could possibly be done.
And you have to do all this while working hours so obscene that sleeping at the office is seen as a badge of honor, that not doing so is some sort of dereliction of duties. This story about Baltimore coach John Harbaugh's schedule reveals his life to be a sleep-deprived, endless nightmare of meetings, game tape watching and 15-minute phone visits with his family -- "a chance to step away from everything and remember what's important" … for 15 minutes. And while you are doing all this, you are acutely aware that no matter how well you do your job, someday you will be fired from it, in public view, the whole world reveling in and dissecting your failure. No rational human would want this for a life. It's no wonder they have so many health problems, they work in a coal mine.
So I find myself sympathetic, on the whole, when coaches blow a gasket, whether it's Mike Gundy loudly announcing his age into a microphone or Fran McCaffery throwing a chair around or bumping into a referee. A job like that will make a man crazy.
Still, none of this explains Bobby Petrino.
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Even in a world full of people who are only out for themselves, mercenaries who talk about unity and commitment and then cut bait at the first opportunity, Bobby Petrino is of particular regard. There was the time he took countless interviews for other jobs while at Louisville -- even jobs that were occupied -- and lied about it to anyone who asked. There was the time he gave a big emotional speech to the Atlanta Falcons about commitment, about competition and loyalty, telling them that anyone who couldn't hack it shouldn't even show up on Monday … and then he himself didn't show up on Monday. (Petrino's abandonment led to Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer giving one of the great sports quotes of all time: "He's a gutless bastard. Quote that. I don't give a s---. … How about this, gutless MF. You can use that.") And there is of course the most infamous Petrino incident, his motorcycle crash at Arkansas, involving a staff member with whom he admitted having an "inappropriate relationship." It is one thing to have an affair; it is another to put someone on the university payroll for it, and then lie about it to everyone in earshot.
In most professions, Petrino is working at Home Depot right now. In football, his redemption story -- now in its holdover fourth edition! -- keeps getting him pushed up the food chain. After one year at Western Kentucky, Petrino was hired again by Louisville, after Charlie Strong left for Texas. This is a school admitting that winning -- Petrino is many things, but he does win games -- is the only thing that matters. They've been kicked in the face by Petrino before. They're happy to have that happen again, if it means some wins in their new conference.
There would be something refreshing about this -- no student-athlete prattle, just pure, cold winning -- if there weren't, you know, actually football players who don't get paid putting their bodies and minds on the line, for a coach who everyone admits won't be sticking around long. If Bobby Petrino wants to leave Louisville in two years, he'll get a raise. If a player wants to leave Louisville in two years, he must sit out a year, figure out a new system, change his entire life and be yelled at by college coaches on television for being a part of the increasing problem of athlete transfers.
Never mind that Louisville is a public university, and Petrino's about to become one of its most public faces again. There is a difference between his antics at a public school and a private one, and it's not just that your texts and phone calls to your mistress are public when you use a university phone (though there is that). Petrino is a representive of the University of Louisville, a public instritution. We forget that sometimes, and we shouldn't. Though we might remember when Petrino does something else to embarrass his employers and/or himself. Because he always does.
And we keep bringing him back, because no one's pretending anymore. You know who the smartest person is in all of this? Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart. When he hired Petrino last year, he had no illusions. He knew who Petrino was, and knew he was only going to use the Hilltoppers job to rebuild his resume so he could get a better one. So he built into the contract a buyout clause: $850,000 a year for four years, with a $1.2 million buyout. If someone wanted Petrino bad enough, they'd pay the buyout. Petrino's restless feet didn't even keep him in Bowling Green for one year, which means that not only did Stewart get an eight-win season out of Petrino, but Western Kentucky will actually make a profit off Petrino's salary alone. Petrino was their coach for one season, and WKU was paid $350,000 for the privilege. Now that's understanding what you're in for when you hop in the boat with the snake.
Louisville, even though it specifically should have known better, is unlikely to have such good fortune. As always, it's the players who are affected the most. But as if this wasn't clear enough already, they're the last ones anybody's thinking about. At least they don't have to sleep in the office. Yet.
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