GQ correspondent and badass essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan once described the state of Kentucky as being “shaped like an alligator’s head. It’s also shaped like the Commonwealth of Virginia, as if the latter were advancing westward by generation of mature clones.”
This description–besides being evocative and incredibly true–also sort of hints at how I’ve always viewed the state, which is Kentucky’s just there. It stretches east to west from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River, and creeps north to south from the Ohio River to the rolling hills of northern Tennessee. It’s sort of in transition–as Sullivan’s image implies–and remains geographically and culturally ambiguous.
So I’d like to think, like a sh*tty writer does, that new Western Kentucky head coach Bobby Petrino and (please, Cincinnatians, don’t take this the wrong way) new Cincinnati head coach Tommy Tuberville chose their new career paths because that’s what Kentucky and its surrounding region represent: transition*.
Kentucky’s the gateway to everything: the South, the North, the East, the Midwest. People not only live there, but many also pass through it daily. And I’ve wondered, like many college football writers do, whether Tuberville’s stay in Clifton and Petrino’s in Bowling Green are permanent or ephemeral, because you don’t see two head coaches with bonafide SEC credentials like theirs staying at programs like those for long.
Think about it: both coaches are known for abrupt exits (Tuberville left Ole Miss and Texas Tech unexpectedly; Petrino, see: Louisville, the Atlanta Falcons, Arkansas), and Petrino’s contract even has a $1.2 million buyout clause if he bounces before his time’s up. And neither are located in power conferences, because “lulz” at Petrino’s Sun Belt and Cincy’s Big East is done–imploded and scattered between Conference USA and the ACC.
Of course, Hilltopper and Bearcats fans will cry foul that the media’s already baiting these two into leaving. Their anger wouldn’t necessarily be misplaced. There are examples from around the country of formerly big-time coaches heading mid-major programs, like Ohio’s Frank Solich, Akron’s Terry Bowden and UT-San Antonio’s Larry Coker. But out of those three, only Solich really seems to “get” being at a mid-major, not to mention generate success at it. Both Bowden’s and Coker’s** programs are works in progress, and both men perpetually seem stuck between wanting to coach and just holing up in self-imposed coaching exile.
So there’s always the chance that Petrino and Tuberville stay. But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we now live in a world where Bret Bielema wants to leave a venerable Wisconsin program to take over a mid-level SEC school because, well, SEC. You can bet that Petrino’s name will be the first one floated when a head coaching gig opens up within the conference. And he’ll be good as gone.
Tuberville’s stay at Cincy is harder to predict. The fact that his wife grew up 30 miles from downtown Cincinnati in Indiana has already been beaten to death, and UC’s lobbying of the ACC is no secret, as it has spent $120 million from 2001-2011 to upgrade its facilities. Not to mention Tuberville has history with UC Athletic Director Whit Babcock and–as noted in recent Tuberville stories–he’s more than excited to start recruiting southwestern Ohio, which has some of the best high school football talent in the country. So there’s that.
What isn’t debatable is these guys’ inevitable success. They’ll probably win some games at their new schools. For how long? No one knows. Just realize that the two largest interstates that go through Cincinnati and Bowling Green, I-75 and I-65, respectively, both lead south.
* – Disclaimer: When I say “transition” I don’t mean that in a negative way. Kentucky’s cool with me: the bourbon, the basketball (well, outside Lexington), the literature and its sorority women. Also, Louisville’s on a short list of places I have to visit.
** – Remember that before UTSA hired Coker, they didn’t even have a football team. So Coker’s been tasked with building an entire program; although, one could probably make the same argument for Bowden at Akron, which has primarily served as Ohio State’s week one whipping boy and little else.