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Bobby Petrino’s unusual contract could make it really hard for Louisville to fire him

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The school would owe him a ton of money, but that might not be the most interesting part of their deal.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Bobby Petrino and Louisville are having a bad 2018.

The Cardinals haven’t adapted well to a post-Lamar Jackson rule, and they’ve looked bad even when they’ve won, which hasn’t been a lot. In Week 5 against Florida State, he made a most perplexing late play call, flushing a near-certain win down the drain, and then they got destroyed at home by Georgia Tech.

Lots of Louisville fans have opined that Petrino looks disinterested during games, and message boards are hot with theories that he’s trying to get himself fired.

That’s probably not true.

But it is true that Petrino’s unusual contract might insulate him from the heat. He’s positioned to make out well, whether he’s fired or not.

If Louisville fires Petrino during the 2018 season or right after it, the school could owe him more than $14 million in buyout money.

Petrino signed a seven-year extension in 2016. He’s under contract into the 2023 calendar year. The buyout provisions in Petrino’s contract — a copy of which SB Nation reviewed — are complex, but we can boil them down.

If Louisville fires Petrino without cause — i.e., for losing too many games — it has to pay out his guaranteed money for the rest of that year and three years following it. (If Louisville were to fire him in the last three years of the deal, the school would only owe him whatever remained at that point. The structure of Petrino’s contract would make his buyout slightly bigger if he were fired in 2019, so Louisville might not have reason to wait.)

His contract also includes a $500,000 annual payment when Louisville’s Academic Progress Rate score is above 935, and his team is above that mark, as is almost every Division I program.

Petrino’s 2018 pay, including the APR bonus, comes out to $4.475 million. If Louisville fired him on Dec. 1, right after the season, it would owe:

  • $4.025 million for 2019
  • $4.075 million for 2020
  • $4.125 million for 2021

That’s $12.225 million.

But the school would still have to pay him whatever remains of his $3,975,000 base pay for 2018, going to the end of the calendar year. If Louisville fired him on Dec. 1, 2018, that’d leave him one more month of base pay for this year (about $331,000) on top of everything above. (His $500,000 APR payment is due in November, so he’d get that before being fired in this case.)

His buyout would total about $12.6 million at that point, but because of the deal’s structure, that likely would not be all. The language also suggests Petrino would likely get three more years of the $500,000 APR bonuses, even if he weren’t coaching. Unless Louisville argued against that or somehow failed to keep up its APR, Petrino’s buyout would rise by another $1.5 million, going to about $14.1 million on Dec. 1, 2018.

That’s roughly a top-15 buyout, going by other figures on USA Today’s list from 2017. Coaches with buyouts that big aren’t supposed to be fired at all.

It’s not clear that Louisville can afford to pay off Petrino and hire someone else, who’d demand millions per year himself.

Louisville’s already paying lots of people not to work.

  • The school fired athletic director Tom Jurich amid an FBI investigation and agreed to pay him more than $7 million.
  • The school fired basketball coach Rick Pitino amid the same investigation. Louisville canned Pitino for cause, but Pitino disagrees with that and has sued Louisville in an attempt to collect $37 million.

The school could’ve asked megadonor Papa John to help cover Petrino’s buyout. But the school just took the racial-slur-saying, shitty-pizza-selling billionaire’s name off the stadium. That garlic butter slush fund might have dried up.

Petrino’s contract is almost unbelievable, given his history.

Petrino is famous for shenanigans (chronicled in the more than decade-long Petrino Shenanigans Tracker), but a common thread has been that he rarely sticks around.

He allegedly left a Jaguars job to go to Auburn in the early 2000s, without telling Tom Coughlin he was leaving. He’s interviewed for various jobs, reportedly while not telling people at his current jobs. He signed a 10-year contract at Louisville in 2006, left for the Falcons a half-year later, and left the Falcons midseason less than a year after that. Arkansas fired him after a motorcycle crash he lied about. He went to Western Kentucky and left to come back to Louisville after one year. My head is spinning from typing this all out.

It’s odd that Louisville would make this kind of financial commitment to a coach whose defining attribute has been a lack of commitment.

But that same history is also the explanation for other parts of the deal.

Petrino appeared to have burned bridges when he left Louisville. Jurich, the then-AD, talked about cleaning up his old coach’s messes.

But when Charlie Strong left Louisville in good enough shape to win with the right coach in 2014, the Cardinals pounced on their old head man.

At that point, Louisville had to convince its fans Petrino was a safe bet. The Cardinals faced the same problem anyone does when they get back together with an ex: trying to convince their friends my ex has changed. You can trust them now.

So the Cardinals and Petrino drew up the rare contract that did its own PR:

  • Look at how confident Louisville was in Petrino, making this huge financial pledge.
  • Look at how confident Petrino was in Jurich. The coach agreed to pay Louisville a huge buyout in the event he left for another job — between $5.5 million and $10 million owed to the school, depending on when. Because the two men were betting on each other, that amount would go down by half if Jurich left. (That’s happened.)

That wasn’t the only thing the Cardinals did to Petrino-proof the deal.

Most every contract has a clause about outside income or employment. Coaches typically have to ask their bosses if it’s OK to take other work. It’s not supposed to be unreasonably withheld, but it almost never comes up (BC firing Jeff Jagodzinski for interviewing with the Jets might be the most public exception.) Lots of people in lots of careers have these in their agreements.

Petrino’s contract, though, has ultra-restrictive language that could make it a breach of contract if he or his agent does anything to try to get the coach another job:

Employee agrees not to negotiate for, either personally, or through any agent, or actively seek, or accept other full-time or part-time employment of any nature during the term of this Employment Contract without first giving ten (10) days written notice to the Athletic Director and Chairman, unless Employer has given notice of intention not to renew or extend this Employment Contract.

A more common passage is like this one, from Maryland’s deal with DJ Durkin ...

The Coach will notify the Athletic Director before entering into any agreement, arrangement, or contract wherein Coach receives any athletically related income or benefits from sources outside the University.

... or this, from Texas A&M’s contract with Jimbo Fisher, which has a clause similar to Petrino’s, but just applies to part-time work and not other coaching jobs:

Something like the Petrino language is not common.

Louisville knew who it was getting into bed with.

The Cardinals prepared for the possibility that Petrino might try to leave, because he’d been doing that for more than a decade already. But when they extended his deal after two years, they didn’t prepare for him to start losing a bunch of games.