On Thursday, Nov. 20, two days before Auburn played Alabama in the annual "Iron Bowl" that galvanizes the state, president William Walker, athletics director David Housel, and two trustees flew into Clark County, Ind., airport, near Sellersburg, to meet clandestinely with Petrino, whose first U of L team will take an 8-3 record into Friday's game at Cincinnati.
The Auburn party's means of transportation was a private plane owned by Bobby Lowder, the trustee and booster who really runs Auburn football. He's the guy who orchestrated the firing of Terry Bowden in the mid-'90s. This season he apparently became disenchanted with War Eagle Coach Tommy Tuberville, who capped a somewhat disappointing 7-5 season with a win over Alabama last Saturday.
Tuberville, for whom Petrino worked as offensive co-ordinator during the 2002 season, has won or shared three Southeastern Conference Western Division championships in his four years at Auburn, and, most importantly, beaten the Crimson Tide three times in four games.
His only sin, apparently, is that he's not the second coming of Ralph "Shug" Jordan or Pat Dye, the two coaches against whom all Auburn coaches are measured.
The meeting between the Auburn brass and Petrino was a gross breach of football etiquette. The proper procedure would have been for Auburn to fire Tuberville, if that's what it's determined to do, then ask Tom Jurich, U of L's vice-president for athletics, for permission to speak with Petrino.
But just as Michigan State and John L. Smith colluded behind Jurich's back at the end of last season, so did Petrino and Auburn this time around.
After the meeting, both parties lied about it. At Auburn, of course, lying is a way of life. But there was no reason to believe that Petrino would lie to Jurich, his team, the media, the public, and his sports information director, in addition to stabbing Tuberville -- allegedly a friend -- in the back.
What in the world was he thinking?
Even after The Courier-Journal had obtained information that Lowder's plane had been in the area, Petrino continued to stonewall. But when Auburn's president, Walker, finally came clean, Petrino was forced to 'fess up.
Petrino tried to blame his unethical behavor on his "inexperience," and Jurich mentioned his "innocence" in dealing with such situations. But that doesn't wash. A man who has coached in six NCAA Division I programs and with one NFL teams simply can't use naitivity as an excuse.
Tuberville couldn't be blamed for telling Auburn to take its job and shove it. He also has every right to spurn Petrino's apology.
Auburn's reputation is further tarnished. The place simply is a football cesspool, and anybody who comes near it risks getting dirty.
And Petrino has a ton of fence-mending to do with Jurich, his players, the public, and the media. He must prove that the Auburn fiasco was an aberration, not a character trait. The only way to do that is to be scrupulously honest in all his future dealings.
For the foreseeable future, Petrino's options are limited. No self-respecting university wants to hire a liar as its head coach, so Petrino now is damaged goods. He can regain his standing in the football community only by continuing to do a good job and avoiding any hint of scandal.
It says here that if major-league baseball can give steroid users five strikes, Petrino deserves a second chance to reclaim his good name. Let's hope, for the sake of all concerned, that he makes the most of it.