Three weeks ago when it became apparent there likely would have to be a coaching change at Kentucky, it seemed unlikely that former Louisville and Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino would be on UK’s list of potential new coaches no matter if he is considered one of the best offensive coaches in the game and needed a job.
But now, things seem to be changing. Indications are Kentucky may indeed have not just a bit of interest in Petrino, but a lot of interest as it continues the process for finding a coach while Joker Phillips guides the Wildcats through the final two games of what has been a 1-9 season.
— In April Petrino was involved in a motorcycle crash with former Arkansas all-SEC volleyball player Jessica Dorrell, whom he had hired in March as the student-athlete development coordinator for the football program. Petrino denied that anyone was with him at first, but later admitted Dorrell was not only a passenger, but that he had an adulterous relationship with her. It was also discovered that Petrino made a previously undisclosed $20,000 cash gift to Dorrell and Arkansas fired Petrino.
— Petrino got his first head coaching job at Louisville in 2003, but secretly interviewed for the coaching job at Auburn before there was a coaching vacancy at Auburn during his second season at Louisville. Petrino had 11 wins in 2004 and 12 wins in 2006 and signed a 10-year, $25.6 million contract with Louisville but about six months later left to become the head coach of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
— With three games left in his first NFL season, Petrino resigned as coach of the Falcons and took the coaching job at Arkansas.
But former UK basketball coach Joe Hall says there is another side to some of those stories. Hall’s son-in-law, Mike Summers, coached under Petrino before coming to Lexington three years ago to join Phillips’ staff.
“I know there is a lot of misinformation about Petrino and looking for other jobs when he was at Louisville, especially the situation at Auburn,” said Hall. “People were wanting to talk to him. He was not out chasing jobs and would not have left Louisville if he had not been approached about jobs. He was very loyal to Louisville. The AD (athletics director) and president at Auburn pressure him to meet with them. They flew up to southern Indiana to talk to him. He told them it was a waste of time but he had been at Auburn as offensive coordinator and respected those people. All he did was talk. Nothing else.”
What about leaving the Falcons the way he did?
“The situation was not him leaving team with three games to go. He went into management to bench a couple of starters that were causing problems and they told him he couldn’t do it,” Hall said. “He said was to have complete control but they said he couldn’t bench players they were paying big money. He told them then he would be not be back the next year and they said he was finished now.
“He was going to finish the year. He was not going to walk out. But they changed the locks on the door so he could not get back to the locker room. There was a lot more to that story.”
Hall, who won the 1978 national championship, is an avid football fan and sees no reason for UK not to hire Petrino now.
“This is a very unusual opportunity to have a coach out of a job who could be the guy that you want here,” Hall said. “I would think it is an unbelievable opportunity to get a coach that maybe you would never ordinarily be able to approach. With the situation here, you could not get a better coach than Bobby Petrino. This is a chance for Kentucky to bring in a very predictable successful coach.”
Hall noted that UK once passed over basketball coach John Calipari and hired Billy Gillispie because some at UK had concerns about rumored problems Calipari had with the NCAA.
“After Gillipsie, it was so important to get UK back on the winning side that they (UK officials) overlooked what they were afraid of the first time with hiring Calipari. They brought him in and it has not been a bad situation at all,” Hall said. “Calipari was different in that he was still a winner and had not done anything morally wrong. A lot of his problems with his perception but the NCAA had never come down on him personally in any way.”
Hall describes Petrino as a “taskmaster” and said he could be “tough” on assistant coaches and “demanding” on his players. But aren’t most top coaches that way?
“He’s a very strict disciplinarian. He recruits kids that might have a temptation to stray a little and he rides herd on them,” Hall said.
Hall called Petrino an “offensive genius” who can look at a defense and “pick it apart if he has the players” to run his offense.
“He would make (Maxwell) Smith or (Patrick) Towles a great quarterback,” Hall said. “He would have good players to work with at UK and a young team that he could mold.”
Kentucky has not won a SEC championship since 1977. Other teams that have won championships might have coaching vacancies in the weeks ahead. But Hall believes the uncertainty about the future could help UK land Petrino.
“I know he likes Kentucky. His family like Kentucky,” Hall said. “It would be a very satisfying move for his family to come back here.”
Think about it. Rick Pitino left Kentucky for the NBA, struggled and returned to Louisville. He was involved in an extramarital affair, but took the Cards to the Final Four last year and is favored to do so again.
Would UK fans be as accepting of Petrino?
“If he won, how do you think they would embrace him. It is a matter of he came and turned the program around in two years, nobody would have a problem with him just like they don’t another certain coach at another school in this state,” Hall said.