MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Louisville Cardinals' traditional fan-appreciation bowl party had been going a good while Wednesday night when the strangest attendee of all showed up.
He should have been the guest of honor. The life of the party. Instead, when Bobby Petrino walked through the ballroom door at the Peabody Hotel, the soiree went weird.
On a night already rife with gossip, simmering ill will and rampant speculation about who will be the next Louisville football coach, the current Louisville football coach made a surprising appearance. Petrino not only showed up, but stayed for quite some time. He mingled with fans who had been ripping him all night for his clumsy flirtation with LSU, which began less than a week after Petrino signed a new contract and swore his allegiance (again) to Louisville.
Fans immediately divided into two schools of speculative thought: Is he here to mend fences in case he doesn't get the LSU job, or is he trying to say goodbye?
The coach was in the middle of some awkward small talk about the Grizzlies-Celtics game he attended with his team earlier that night when an older woman approached him. Dressed in Louisville red, she clapped a hand on his shoulder and said, with maximum acidity, "Best of luck in your next endeavor."
"My next endeavor is Friday at 2:30," he responded, referencing the Louisville-Boise State Liberty Bowl showdown that has gone from a marquee game to another job-carousel sideshow. Petrino's face tightened after that exchange and he quickly called it a night.
Petrino is right about one thing: The Liberty Bowl is his next endeavor. The question is whether it will be his last endeavor as coach of the Cardinals -- no matter what happens with LSU.
If LSU offers Petrino the job, he'll take it. If LSU goes a different direction -- Oklahoma State's Les Miles being the other top option -- it would not be a shock to see Louisville take the extraordinary step of divorcing itself from one of the hottest coaches in the country.
It's a realistic option, and it would be the ultimate payback for Petrino's hubris. Shocking as it might be to bounce a certified offensive maestro with a 19-5 record in two seasons, such a move likely would be supported by a fed-up fan base. In fact, the multi-million-dollar buyout figure needed to pull it off might be the easiest fund raising athletic director Tom Jurich would ever have to do.
Jurich won't comment publicly on the Petrino-LSU situation, but the tension was written on his face at the fan party. The event is usually one of Jurich's favorite moments of the year, a grand thank-you bash on the athletic department's nickel, but he's having a hard time enjoying himself this week. His relationship with the coach he handpicked to lead his football program into the Big East has frayed considerably.
In fact, Petrino's fourth meeting with another school in little more than a year's time could well be the breaking point in his relationship with all of Planet Red. His devious meeting with Auburn last year, behind the back of his own administrators and his former boss, Tommy Tuberville, was bad. Following that up by chasing the Florida job, then the Notre Dame job and now the LSU job, is worse.
Worst of all: Going after the LSU opening before the ink is dry on your new deal, and just after professing your undying (he really means it this time) affection for Louisville. Asked point-blank on Dec. 21 if the new contract nullified any potential interest in LSU, Pinocchio -- uh, Petrino -- said it did.
Oops, he did it again.
Now the coach is left twitching on the griddle while the LSU search plays out from Orlando, where the Tigers are set to play Iowa in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day. LSU interviewed associate head coach Bobby Williams Wednesday night and acknowledged that it has interviewed former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum. There is speculation that the Tigers might also meet with Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio after the Jags end the regular season Sunday.
So the uncomfortable holding pattern continues for Petrino and Louisville. Thursday the coach had his final meeting with the media prior to the Liberty Bowl, in a meeting room at the DoubleTree Hotel. What followed could have been titled DoubleSpeak at the DoubleTree.
Petrino began the news conference by saying that he would only discuss his team and this bowl game. That worked for a while, but inevitably reporters could not ignore the 800-pound elephant of a topic hovering overhead.
Asked whether the very existence of The Taboo Topic increased the pressure Petrino felt for this game, he gave a surprisingly candid answer.
"Certainly, Certainly," he said. "I want to win it so everyone knows I spent all week preparing for it."
That primed the pump. Another reporter started to broach the subject, mentioning the fans' wounded feelings. Petrino smiled and said, "Is he trying to talk about something we're not talking about?"
But the line of the day came from the fresh mouth of Memphis Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins. Noting that Petrino was standing not five feet from a Christmas tree festooned with ornaments that bore a striking resemblance to LSU's colors, Calkins asked Petrino, "Did you order the purple-and-gold Christmas tree?"
Petrino looked at Calkins for a second and then ignored him, moving on to the next question.
After the news conference, the Cardinals boarded their buses for the final pregame walk-through. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, the team energy guy, walked down the aisle of the bus clapping his hands, slapping players on the shoulders, encouraging them to keep their focus sharp in the final preparation stages.
The buses drove to the University of Memphis' small indoor facility. Memphis motorcycle cops wearing Cardinal decals on their white helmets stopped traffic to allow the motorcade to zip off.
Befitting a unit that leads the nation in scoring and yardage, the offense did its walk-through indoors on an aritificial surface that comprises about half a football field. The defense did its walk-through in the parking lot.
This practice was all about the mental game. Players wore sweats, no equipment necessary. They were drilled on formations and substitutions, and went back over any plays that hadn't been run to perfection the previous day. On the defensive side, coordinator Mike Cassity put himself in the role of Boise State's quarterback and checked to see that his players lined up correctly against the Broncos' formations and shifts.
Despite the drama swirling on the outside, Louisville's players seem unaffected and ready to play. Of course, when your coach's name has come up endlessly in speculation ever since Ron Zook was fired at Florida in late October, you have time to get used to it.
"We work right through that," receiver Montrell Jones said. "It's been going on all season.
"We had a team meeting [about the LSU situation] and he told us what he had to discuss. He's the best offensive mind out there, so you can understand why people are interested in him. I do hope he'll stay, but everything coming his way, he totally deserves that."
For his coaching acumen, Petrino might deserve the LSU job. For the way he's treated his current employer, he might also deserve a pink slip from Louisville.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.