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Redemption and Bobby Petrino

Redemption and Bobby Petrino



The final play of the 2012 Cotton Bowl was meant to be a promise of things to come. When quarterback Tyler Wilson took the snap, then a knee, then a congratulatory helmet-slap from one of his lineman, it was generally understood that the team he captained to an 11-2 record that season would be back next year with a chance to build on an almost-dream season. Wilson would turn down a first-round grade in the NFL draft to come back for a senior season, as would lead running back Knile Davis, and star receiver Cobi Hamilton. The defense would be improved, the offense would be its typical explosive self, and the Arkansas Razorbacks, under head coach Bobby Petrino, would carry a top-ten ranking into the 2012-13 season and with it top-ten expectations and top-ten possibilities.

            It was a good year to be an Arkansas Razorback fan. The spotlight shone bright, and its heat was glorious.

            “No creature that deserved Redemption would need to be redeemed.”

-          C.S. Lewis

            It is a poor understanding of redemption that sees it as something to be earned or merited. No such a thing is possible. If it is possible for a man to earn the favor which he does not possess then he is not in need of redemption, but of opportunity.  We are enamored with so-called “redemption” stories in true-life situations and in film and literary narratives, but the truth is that what many of them offer are not tales of true redemption, but rather recountings of an individual’s ability to change their public perception through hard work, dedication, and sometimes a bit of religious fervor.

            This is not redemption.

            The spotlight is fickle and often cruel mistress. It is usually not content to merely leave when things go wrong, but often feels obligated to humiliate its subject before withdrawing and turning its attention to another.

            It was, ironically enough, April 1st of that same year when it all began unraveling. A wandering heart, a pretty face, and slick curve of asphalt conspired together with the two wheels of a motorcycle and brought a football program to its knees and its coach to his doom. Bobby Petrino wrecked his motorcycle on what seemed to be an innocent joyride through the hills and turns of Arkansas Hwy 23, affectionately known as “The Pig Tail” to those who traverse it with any regularity. Once it was established that the body and mind of the coach were intact, a sigh of relief was breathed by fans near and far. It took a couple of days for the world to realize that it was his soul that merited concern. Faced with the realization that the police report would reveal what he had so desperately wanted to hide, Petrino called his athletic director and told a sordid tale.

            There was a young lady involved, the fiancé of a volleyball coach and the apparent lover of the football coach. There were also other improprieties, ones with legal and financial implications that couldn’t be ignored or excused as readily as could a fairly simple and straight-forward affair. The girl was an employee of the football program, hired in connection to her romantic entanglement with the coach. Money had exchanged hands. Trust no longer could.

            Not all the details were officially released to the public, and a search of half-a-dozen Arkansas-related message boards will net half-a-dozen distinct theories on what can and can’t be known for sure. Conspiracy theories abound.          

            What is known, however, is that shortly thereafter Bobby Petrino was fired by the University of Arkansas and former special-teams coach John L. Smith was coerced to leave his position of athletic director at his alma mater and embrace the “interim head coach” label at Arkansas for a season. The fan base balked at losing the man who had led them to two-straight 10-win seasons but, after consideration, they found solace in the assurance that the entire coaching staff was returning to support Smith and that the senior class was a strong one. Strong enough, it was hoped, to at least repeat last year’s success, if not build on it.

            The spotlight never waned in its presence and intensity, but the tint was beginning to turn from “success” to “soap opera.”

            “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have its own   reward.”

-          George R.R. Martin

            A man is only ever in need of redemption when he is completely without recourse in his attempt to overcome his failures and to recover what was lost. Because he has not lost something, he has lost himself. There are many things a man might lose that can be, by luck or pluck, regained, but he, himself, is not one of them. When a man falls so far and finally that he himself becomes lost in the labyrinth of misdeeds and mistrust; when he has not only mortgaged his fortune, family, and future  in the pursuit of that which is not his, but his soul as well, he has reached a place where redemption is necessary.

            And, on his own, totally unattainable.

            Under interim coach Smith, the Razorbacks opened-up their 2012-13 campaign with an unimpressive 49-24 win over Jacksonville State. The Razorbacks actually trailed 14-7 early in the second quarter before reeling-off four straight touchdowns to effectively put their opponent away. Fans did their best to assuage their qualms and fears heading into a week-two match-up with a Louisiana-Monroe team that had been a perennial doormat for Arkansas throughout the years.

            This year, however, was different. The visiting Warhawks knocked QB Wilson out of the game in the first-half and knocked the Razorback team around the entire second-half. In the end, Warhawk QB Kolton Browning ran for the winning TD on the final play of overtime to stun the 8th ranked Razorbacks with a 37-34 upset. The remainder of the season would include only three more wins and losses by fifty-two points to Alabama and forty-eight points to Texas A&M among others. A season that had once held the promise of unparalleled success ended with inconsolable disappointment.

            The wheels had come off the bus, and the spotlight saw it all. And then it went out.


            “Never forget what you were saved from.”

                         -  Jim George

            To be in need of redemption is rather like owing a debt that you are not only incapable of paying, but are not allowed to pay. It is your debt, racked up through poor choices and poorer character, but it is the co-signer who is left with the burden of payment. It is those people who trusted you, loved you, and invested in you that must make the choice whether or not the note is to be paid and burned. Much like an item pawned by its owner cannot rise from its bin and redeem itself. It must be redeemed through the blood, sweat, and tears of someone who cares enough for that item to pay the price to reclaim it.

            Certainly a man cares enough about himself to put all the effort necessary into his attempt to self-redeem, but no amount of effort can overcome the barrier of impossibility. No matter how far down the road he travels, he will never reach his destination. The place he seeks cannot be reached on that road. It is a circular track he travels, it leads ever onward, but onward to nowhere.

            Fast forward to the 2014 season and the fallout is still settling in. Arkansas followed up a 4-8 2012 season with a 3-9 2013 outing under new, non-interim head coach Brett Bielema, formerly of the Wisconsin Badgers. They are riding a thirteen-game losing streak in conference play and just recently snapped a ten-game overall losing streak by thrashing Nicholls State. A team made famous by high-octane offense is now adjusting to Bielema’s ground-and-pound style of football.

            Once-touted NFL prospects Tyler Wilson and Cobi Hamilton are struggling to stay on practice squads in the league, and running back Knile Davis is the only one of the three former Arkansas stand-outs with a secure roster spot.

            Ole Miss, Auburn, and Texas A&M now battle with LSU and Alabama for dominancy in the SEC West. Arkansas is not mentioned in any serious sports conversations.

            April 1st is now a national holiday about lying and getting away with it.[1]

            “The Christian notion of the possibility of redemption is incomprehensible to the     computer”

-          Vance Packard

            It is those who are wronged and to whom the debt is owed that do the redeeming. Either they choose their pain and their rights as a victim or they choose the redemption of a fellow human. To redeem the fallen is to let go of the debt that is owed, to release the expectation of the wrongs being righted, the wounds being removed, and the insults being withdrawn. It is a kind of healing, but it is a painful healing. Every wrong and every hurt is revisited and reopened and every thought of reciprocity or reparation dismissed so the prodigal can be welcomed home once again.

            Redemption is the path that leads out of the labyrinth, the payment that closes the loan, restores the item to its owner, and settles all accounts. Being such, it is always something that must reach towards its subject rather than reaching out from them. It comes from without, not within.

            It is not a payment, it is a gift.

            Almost five hundred miles northeast of Fayetteville, AR in Louisville, KY another football team is adjusting to a new coach and a new system. When then-current now-former head coach Charlie Strong left to helm a sputtering Texas Longhorn program, the Cardinals of Louisville turned to a familiar face to keep their ship steady. Before wrecking the hopes and dreams of several thousand Razorback fans along with his motorcycle (and before a short thirteen-game stint with the Atlanta Falcons that no one really wants to think about), Bobby Petrino had piloted Louisville to the greatest heights in program history. 

            But Bobby’s eyes wandered while at Louisville, flirting, it seemed, with every pretty-faced program that came along and batted their multi-million dollar eyes at him. Finally, the allure of an NFL job proved too much for the man to resist and he fled Louisville, breaking hearts and burning bridges on the way out. So it is a very strange turn of events to find him once again wearing Louisville Cardinal athletic gear.[2]

            Somehow, someway Petrino got a second chance at football, at family, and at Louisville. It’s a chance to prove he’s changed, he’s different, a new and better man. But one thing it’s not is a chance at redemption. There is nothing that Petrino can do now that will change what he had done before. Right actions and choices in 2014 and beyond will not undo wrong actions and choices in 2012 and the years before.

            This is not an argument against the necessity of change, but rather the observation that every point passed in life is a point of no-return and therefore the reality of the past cannot be impacted by the future. Wrongs are by nature un-rightable and to try and live a good life as penance for the evil of lives past wastes the good with the bad. Good deeds are only truly good when done in the name of good and not in an effort to rewrite past wrongs.

            If Petrino has truly changed and become a new and better man, it will not be because he has redeemed himself. A man who is unfaithful to his wife, who does lethal damage to the NFL careers of those young men who trusted their livelihood to him, and who establishes a pattern of behavior that is dismissive of others can never redeem himself. It is impossible.

            But it seems Bobby Petrino has been redeemed. Just not by his own efforts.

            His wife redeemed him when she stayed with him despite his unfaithfulness. His children redeemed him when they chose to continue to love and respect him as their father despite his actions. The Louisville athletic director redeemed him when he gave him the position as head coach after being given every reason not to do so. These are acts of redemption.

            Whatever path Petrino takes from this point, it will not be a path of redemption. There are paths of reconciliation, paths of renewal and regeneration, but there are no paths to redemption. A man may change his ways, his habits, and his lifestyle, but he can never redeem himself. That is a precious thing that can only be given to him and never earned.

             So let us set aside the comforting narratives and inspirational stories that lead us to believe that it is possible for us to “make-up” for the evil we do. We cannot. We can only repent and redirect ourselves to a better way. Whether we are ever redeemed is not a decision given to us to make. For that we lean on the mercy of others and hope that they are better than us. And in areas where we are the victims we need not place the burden of “redemption” on the shoulders of those who are incapable of earning that which only we have the power to give.

            No man can redeem himself. But every man can be redeemed.

[1] Yes, I know it was a thing before then, but now it’s a day of mourning in Arkansas.

[2] For more on exactly how it happened, go read Andrea Adelson’s excellent piece at ESPN here.

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