LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Looking back, Bobby Petrino said the first of his many mistakes in recent years was leaving Louisville, which provided the first of several head coaching opportunities on the college and professional levels.
Upon returning Thursday to the Cardinals after seven years, Petrino promised his second stint would be permanent because this was always his destination — even with collegiate stops at Arkansas and Western Kentucky and a 13-game foray with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Petrino returns to a Louisville program that has changed a lot since he left, one that’s gearing up to join the Atlantic Coast Conference next season with a home game against newly-crowned champion Florida State. The coach insisted that he’s a changed person as well as he enters the next — and hopefully final — stop in his career.
“It’s great to be back home,” Petrino said during a sometimes-emotional news conference. “It’s really unbelievable to get the opportunity to come back here. For (wife) Becky, and (children) Nick and Bobby and Katie, this is our home and we’re excited to be able to come back.”
Petrino coached Western Kentucky to an 8-4 record last season in his only year with the team. He led the Cardinals to a 41-9 mark from 2003-06 including a BCS Orange Bowl victory his final season.
Petrino received a seven-year contract with a base annual salary of $3.5 million. It includes a $10 million buyout for leaving that decreases after four years.
But the well-traveled coach said that will not be necessary because this is his “destination job.”
Petrino is 83-30 as a college coach. His record includes a 34-17 mark at Arkansas that ended amid scandal in April 2012. He came to the Razorbacks after a 3-10 season in 2007 with the Falcons that ended with the coach announcing his departure by letters left at the players’ lockers.
“I made mistakes, both professionally and personally, and that’s something I’m not going to do again,” Petrino said. “The first mistake was leaving Louisville, and I’m hoping that the fans and everybody will forgive me. I’m more energized, more excited than I’ve ever been.”
Petrino had been mentioned for the Louisville job almost from the moment Strong left for the Longhorns, but the coach said he became aware of the opening only after Cardinals athletic director Tom Jurich approached WKU athletic director Todd Stewart for permission to interview him.
Jurich said he was angry at Petrino early in the Tuesday interview because of the coach’s behavior in his previous Louisville stint, one that included player disciplinary issues. The AD also said he was mad at Petrino for leaving after the Orange Bowl win for the pros, though he acknowledged the coach was honest about his interest in the job.
On Sunday, Jurich said he and Petrino had previously resolved their differences. But he wanted to see if the coach had truly changed as he has professed since Arkansas fired him for “a pattern of misleading behavior” following a motorcycle accident in which he revealed his mistress was a passenger.
Jurich came away convinced he was getting a different man from the one who left, reinforcing his belief that Petrino was the right fit for the Cardinals.
“If it was the same Bobby that was here 10 years ago, I wasn’t interested,” said Jurich, adding that he kept coming back to Petrino as he went through a list of seven finalists. “He is definitely a changed person.”