"A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” -- John Steinbeck.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino has been on quite a trip lately, and per the noted author's observation decades ago, it is definitely not one of his own choosing.
"I've never really experienced anything like this," he said.
'This' is a season that is imploding, spiraling downward with no relief in sight. At the halfway point of the season, with a trip to Boston College (4-2, 1-1) up next, U of L (2-4, 0-3 ACC) is projected as a decisive underdog in five of its last six games by Vegas oddsmakers, and the Oct. 27 home game against Wake Forest (3-3, 0-2) is considered a tossup.
In the wake of the Cardinals' 66-31 trouncing by Georgia Tech last week, Petrino is listed at No. 6 on CoachesHotSeat.com, sandwiched between Brent Brennan of San Jose State and Auburn's Gus Malzahn.
Petrino may have reached that point among UofL fans even before the Tech fiasco. Card Nation has been up in arms for several weeks, their anger fueled by early struggles against weak Indiana State and Western Kentucky teams and driven further by the offense and defense taking turns with embarrassing performances against Virginia (26-3) and the Yellow Jackets, bookended with a controversial play call that led to a 28-24 loss to Florida State.
Social media and radio talk shows about UofL sports have been dominated by criticism of Petrino, many calling for his firing and others insisting he revamp his staff, which includes three family members and a vagabond defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder.
Howie Lindsey, who hosts Cardinal Call-In on WKRD AM daily, says most of the fans he has interacted with either on radio or online genuinely want Petrino to be successful.
"But I am hearing more questions about a buyout than I have ever heard before," Lindsey said. "And the clicks on stories about Louisville recruiting have drastically dropped as interest seems to have faded there."
However, if Petrino is letting the growing criticism bother him to any great extent, he certainly isn't showing it. As could be expected, that was a hot topic at his weekly press conference Monday.
"I just work," Petrino said. "I go to work, have a positive attitude, try to get our players to understand
that we've got to continue to work and get better. I've been in this game a long time, grew up in it, it's part of my life. But I do feel like I'm a good football coach and I know how to win games."
Petrino said he doesn't listen to sports talk shows or pay attention to what people or saying or writing. Instead, on the way to his office in the morning he listens to country music or to Laura Hardy's "Regular Laura" show on 107.7 The Eagle.
"It's a rock and roll station that has really good rock music," Petrino said. "She always makes me laugh. It depends on what mood I'm in, whether I go with the country or the rock."
While he has his own defenses against criticism in line, he does worry about the impact of social media posts on his players.
"That's the first thing they do is pick up their phone and look and see what's being said about me, what's being said about my teammates, what's being said about whatever," Petrino said. "That's just the life we live in right now, so they have to be able to manage it. They have to be able to not take things personal, be able to handle the criticism."
Petrino was wildly successful during his first tenure at UofL, going 41-9 from 2003-6, with an Orange Bowl championship, two conference titles and teams that were among the nation's offensive leaders.
But Petrino 2.0 hasn't been nearly as effective. He is 36-22 overall and 21-14 in the ACC. He is 1-12 against Top-25 teams, has no conference championships or marquee bowl wins and has lost his last two bowl appearances. The Cards have also dropped five straight to FBS teams and dating back to the end of the 2016 season they are 6-11 against Power Five clubs.
Those numbers only figure to get worse. Here is the Cards' remaining schedule, with ESPN.com's Football Power Index (FPI) win probability percentages:
At Boston College--11.7%
That paints a very bleak picture of Louisville's future. However, even if the Cards finish 2-9 or 3-8, the chances of Petrino being offered a buyout for the remaining five years on his contract are slim and none. Even if school officials wanted it to happen, their hands are tied by a lack of funds. He would be owed nearly $14 million.
"The university is not in a position to buy him out," Tom Meeker, a University of Louisville Athletic Association (ULAA) board member, told Courier-Journal columnist Tim Sullivan Tuesday.
Payments to Xavier University for Chris Mack's buyout and a settlement to fired athletics director Tom Jurich have put a substantial debt in UofL's financial resources, and it could still be facing a payout of $35 million or more to Rick Pitino, depending on the outcome of his breach-of-contract lawsuit.
The Hickman Camp Fund, which represented more than two-thirds of ULAA's available funds ($16.8 million) at the end of 2017, now contains only $8 million.
So no matter what the fans want, Petrino is likely to still be on the sideline when UofL kicks off the 2019 season opener against Notre Dame in Cardinal Stadium.
"Fans are part of the campus community," said Meeker, former president of Churchill Downs. "They have to be heard. But I'm not on the board to make easy decisions. I think the football program is in good hands, albeit the fact that we're not winning (this season). I don't think it's time to stand in the doorway, jump out of the plane and pull the D ring."
When the C-J contacted UofL AD Vince Tyra for a comment on Petrino's fate, he replied by text message: "We have half a season left, so I don't intend to speculate on Bobby's future, only support it as we take on Boston College this week."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at email@example.com.