McCOMBS: Coaches Bobby Petrino, Lane Kiffin thrive in second-chance culture

mmccombs@islandpacket.comJanuary 13, 2014 

Bring up the names Bobby Petrino and Lane Kiffin in a conversation with the average college football fan and you're likely to inspire some head shaking and at least a chuckle or two.

But other than the fact that they are both football coaches who have seen their careers crash and burn spectacularly in recent memory, they weren't tied to each other before this past week.

That's when the two were hired in a pair of unrelated coaching moves that have resulted in a lot of head scratching to go along with all the jokes.

Louisville hired Petrino for his second go-around with the Cardinals, while Kiffin, left stranded at an airport by Southern Cal in September, rebounded by landing the offensive coordinator job at Alabama.

What can these schools be thinking? Are they crazy?

The answer is no.

I'm not saying the hirings were appropriate. Or that I would have made them. But they make some sense. These hires aren't about character. They're about winning games. And both Petrino and Kiffin are good bets to win.

In the case of Petrino, I'll admit, I didn't think Louisville would ever touch him again, telling a friend as much while watching the Orange Bowl recently. No way.

After 20 seasons as an assistant, Petrino first took the Louisville head coaching job in 2003 and was 41-9 with two conference championships in four seasons there.

But after just one season, Petrino had secretly interviewed for the head coaching at Auburn despite the fact that Tommy Tuberville was still employed as the Tigers' coach. But the interview, like most in the world of big-time college football, didn't stay a secret for long. Petrino did stay at Louisville, but after signing a 10-year, $25 million deal in the summer of 2006, it took just one season for him to bolt for greener pastures

He jumped to the NFL, taking the Atlanta Falcons' top job after the 2006 season. He nearly doubled his pay (five years, $24 million) and didn't seem concerned about leaving the Cardinals.

But he couldn't even finish the 2007 season in Atlanta, lasting just 13 games (the Birds were 3-10), leaving his players with a four-sentence "Dear John" letter taped to each of their lockers.

The next stop on the Petrino tour was Arkansas. He quickly turned the Razorbacks around, going from a losing record in 2008 to the BCS in 2010. But Petrino had a motorcycle crash in early 2012 with a female athletic department employee on board. First he lied about her involvement, but it came out that they were having an affair, he had gotten her a job and he had opened Arkansas up to a sexual harassment lawsuit. Not to mention, he had a lot of explaining to do to his wife and kids.

Arkansas ditched him soon thereafter.

Kiffin's road hasn't been as long, but it's just as bumpy.

After bringing the top recruiting class in the nation into Southern Cal for three straight seasons and setting numerous records as the recruiting and passing game coordinator, Kiffin was hired by Al Davis in 2007 to coach the Oakland Raiders. Fifteen losses and just 20 games later, Davis fired Kiffin, publicly calling him a liar.

His life was charmed, though, and he was soon hired by Tennessee to replace the fired Phil Fulmer. In a season with the Vols, Kiffin raised the hopes of Vols fans and irked the rest of the SEC. He shot off his mouth about opposing coaches and schools, all the while getting Tennessee in hot water with the SEC and NCAA.

But he wasn't around long enough to feel any sting. After one promising season with the Vols he left in the heat of recruiting season for Southern Cal, where he went on to coach the Trojans through NCAA sanctions while continuing to get in trouble with his mouth. After several embarrassing losses in 2013, athletics director Pat Haden fired Kiffin at Los Angeles International Airport and refused to let him ride the chartered bus back to campus.

Neither of these guys are the model adult male you want you players, your students, your young men to emulate.

Petrino was a climber, a quitter, an adulterer and a liar. And Kiffin was the same. And it's easy to make the argument that neither are very bright, despite their football genius.

But a funny thing happens in life and in America. No matter what you do, if you pull yourself together and get your life in order, no matter what you do, short of taking someone's life and sometimes even then, we are a people of second chances.

Especially when your second chance benefits someone else.

After his fall from grace at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino made a lot of apologies, public and private. He saved his marriage and vowed to be a different person. Western Kentucky took him at his word. The Hilltoppers gave him a shot, and he led them to an 8-4 record in 2013, including a win over Kentucky of the SEC.

His lifestyle may have changed, but one thing hasn't - with a career college record of 83-30, he has proven he knows how to win.

With a stacked roster and a debut season in the ACC looming next year, Louisville athletics director Tom Jurich needs a coach who can win now. He chose a proven commodity, and whether Petrino's a changed man or not, Jurich gave him a second chance.

As strange as it seems, it's a match.

But just in case, Petrino has a $10 million buyout this time.

As for Kiffin, he's the beneficiary of Nick Saban's drive to win. After years of complaining about how the hurry-up spread offenses are bad for college football, Saban has decided if he can't beat them - the Tide lost to two such offenses in Texas A&M and Auburn over the past two seasons -- he'll join them.

Who knows if Kiffin has changed any of his ways. But he'll help Alabama win.

He knows offense, he knows recruiting and he can make Alabama better at both, as tough as that may seem. And that's what Saban is banking on. He won't be talking to the media and he won't be the face of the program. And that will give him a chance to do some growing up. In a strange way, Alabama is his Western Kentucky.

If Kiffin succeeds in Tuscaloosa, he'll likely get a second chance at coaching a major program, as well.

Forget the job changes. If he stays in one place, it's hard to bet against Petrino's record. And would you bet against Saban and his handful of rings? If not, then it's probably not wise to bet against Kiffin.

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