Eleven years ago, Bobby Petrino was hired as Louisville’s head coach with the hopes of turning the Cardinals’ program from good to great.
John L. Smith had elevated the Cardinals from a 1-10 team in 1997 to a program that made five bowls in five seasons, including an 11-2 season in 2001.
Petrino’s job? Build on his success.
He did just that, going 41-8 in four seasons and winning the program’s first-ever BCS bowl in 2007.
Now, 11 years after he first took Louisville’s reins, Petrino finds himself in an eerily similar position.
His own circuitous career path has brought him back to Louisville, taking over for new Texas coach Charlie Strong. And once again, Petrino must build on his predecessor’s success.
This time, he is taking on an even bigger challenge. He must take a team that went 23-3 in its last two seasons with wins in the Sugar and Russell Athletic Bowls and maintain success while moving into the ACC, a division with defending national champions Florida State and a Clemson team which has finished in the top 10 each of the last two seasons.
“I think it's very similar to when I came in before and took over for John L. Smith,” Petrino said last week. “It's a program that's pretty well set and has great leadership. But now it's time to go to the next level, and going into the ACC and the challenge that that presents with the schedule and in recruiting, it's exciting for all of us.
“It's an exciting time for the city of Louisville and all our fans, and it presents a great challenge. It'll be fun.”
What are realistic expectations for Petrino’s return to Louisville? With trips to Clemson and Notre Dame and a visit from the Seminoles on the docket, not to mention Miami’s season-opening visit, another 10-win season might be hard to produce.
Make no mistake, though. Petrino isn’t conceding anything in the ACC.
“Well, we feel like we can go in and compete,” he said. “That's certainly our goal and something that we're going to work towards. But we're going to have to show it.”
Joining the ACC won’t be Petrino’s only challenge. He and the Cardinals also must move forward without star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who is a projected first-round pick in next month’s NFL draft.
Bridgewater declared for the draft after throwing for 3,970 yards with 31 touchdowns against four interceptions as a junior and leading the Cardinals to 23 wins in his last two seasons as a starter.
Will Gardner emerged from spring practice as the starting quarterback, and Petrino said “he just kind of came in and took over.”
“Will Gardner, he's just young,” Petrino said. “He doesn't have a lot of experience playing in a game, but he certainly believes he's the leader of the team just by the way he goes about his business on a daily basis.”
Gardner stands 6’5”, and Petrino wants him to be a dual threat in the pocket.
“I'm going to keep him under 230 pounds because we feel like he'll be more agile and be able to move,” he said. “But he's very competitive. He certainly has the respect and the trust of all his teammates and can make the different throws and move in the pocket and do the things we want to do.”
In the Cardinals’ spring game, Gardner led the way, throwing for 542 yards and four touchdowns against Louisville’s second-team defense. He has a multitude of weapons, led by explosive receiver DeVante Parker and speedy wideouts Eli Rogers and James Quick.
Gardner lacks experience, but Louisville has plenty of offensive knowledge around him. The Cardinals return seven starters, including four offensive linemen to lead the way.
Defense is another matter entirely. New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, lured from Georgia by a reported $1 million annual salary, inherits only four returning starters from a group that ranked No. 1 in total defense a year ago (allowing 251.1 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (allowing 12.2 points per game).
Grantham also spent the spring converting Louisville from a 4-3 scheme to his preferred 3-4 attack, and Petrino praised the contributions of senior defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin and junior defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.
“The transition to a three-down front at times is exciting for us because we really feel like the outside linebackers/defensive end guys that we have fit perfect into Todd Grantham's scheme, and guys will be able to really show their abilities to rush the passer and play the pass also,” Petrino said. “The transition to the 3-4 is something that was fun to see how it took place.”
Transition is something Petrino is quite familiar with. He left Louisville for a disastrous run with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, leaving after just 13 games and informing his players and assistants of the move to Arkansas with a written note.
He was 34-17 with the Razorbacks, winning 21 games over his final two seasons. But he was abruptly fired in April 2012 after crashing his motorcycle with football staffer Jessica Dorrell on board. He revealed that he and Dorrell were having an extramarital affair and that he also gave her a gift of $20,000, which ended his Arkansas tenure.
A year later, he resurfaced at Western Kentucky, guiding the Hilltoppers to an 8-4 record in his only season. When Strong left for Texas, Petrino landed back at Louisvllle.
“It's great to be back in Louisville,” he said. “I'm really enjoying my time back here, and my family is really excited about it. I was really happy with the way we went through spring ball.”
He praised his new players’ work ethic, saying the “easy transition” was a credit to Strong’s coaching.
“We had a football team that really came out with a lot of effort, their willingness to learn new schemes,” he said. “And we have some good leadership within our team, so that really helps a lot. We have a long way to go. We're not close to where we need to be to open the season September 1, but with the attitude and work ethic that we have on the team, I'm excited about where we can get to as a football team.”
It won’t be easy: The ACC is a major step up in class from the AAC, especially with the addition of Notre Dame as a partial member (the Fighting Irish will play five ACC opponents per season, cycling through the league in a three-year rotation).
“It'll be fun to have to prepare real hard each game, and most of the games I feel will go into the fourth quarter,” Petrino said. “And you're going to have to be in great condition and have good depth and be able to win some tough games in the fourth quarter.”
Louisville’s next move up in the college football hierarchy will be its toughest yet, so it is only fitting that Petrino is back to lead the way.
“I think it's what our fans have wanted for a long time,” he said of the ACC. “And now it's here.”
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
*Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace