As we entered the 2018 season the idea of Bobby Petrino being OUT as head coach at the University of Louisville was not even on the radar. So how did we get here? There isn’t just ONE reason why one of UofL’s all-time coaches was run out of town after his single losing season. Bobby’s 2018 record will finish forever as 2-8. Let’s recap the seasons:
2018: 2-8. (Best win Western Kentucky)
2017: 8-5, unranked with Lamar Jackson. Gator Bowl loss to Mississippi State (Best wins: North Carolina, Florida St, Kentucky)
2016: 9-4 co-Atlantic Division Champions, finished #21, Lamar Jackson Heisman Trophy, Citrus Bowl Loss to LSU (Best wins: #2 Florida State, NC State, Boston College)
2015: 8-5 after starting 2-4. Unranked. Music City Bowl Champions over Texas A&M (Best wins: NC State, Boston College, Virginia, Kentucky, Texas A&M)
2014: 9-4. #24. Lost to Georgia in Belk Bowl (Best wins: Miami, NC State, Notre Dame, Kentucky)
What happened between stints at UofL doesn’t matter to this discussion. It didn’t happen here.
2006: 12-1. #6 Big East Champions, Orange Bowl Champions. (Best Wins: #15 Miami, #3 West Virginia, #15 Wake Forest)
2005: 9-3. #19. Lost to Virginia Tech in Gator Bowl. (Best Wins: Oregon State, North Carolina, Pittsburgh)
2004: 11-1. #6. Conference USA Champions. Liberty Bowl Champions. (Best wins: North Carolina, TCU, Cincinnati, #10 Boise State).
2003: 9-4. unranked. Lost GMAC Bowl to Miami (OH). (Best wins: UK, Syracuse, Cincinnati)
But where did we go wrong? Some will point to Wakeyleaks. Other will point to the Houston game. Was it losing Todd Grantham? Losing Lamar Jackson?
To understand what went wrong we need to start at the beginning. Bobby Petrino left Louisville in 2006 for the Atlanta Falcons. Fresh off of an Orange Bowl win. Michael Vick was the “IT” player in the NFL and Bobby Petrino was taking his offensive genius to the league, with the league’s best player. Arthur Blank got his man. Louisville fans mourned. We’d just been through the best stretch of Louisville Football in history with two #6 finishes in his 4-year tenure. Leaving for the NFL wouldn’t have been hard to imagine…. but after the Auburn plane-gate and flirtations with LSU, Notre Dame, Florida, the Oakland Raiders and many other rumors Louisville fans were tired. And Petrino left after a $25 Million, 10-year contract signed in the summer of 2006.
Louisville Fans were tired of the seesaw worry of whether or not they would lose the most effective head coach in its history. And some never forgave him for leaving. Others lovingly referred to him as ole 41-9.
Then Bobby Petrino soiled his reputation in the NFL when he left the Atlanta Falcons high and dry amid a disappointing season in which Michael Vick was federally indicted (and eventually convicted). Petrino left a note in the locker room telling his players that he was leaving for Arkansas. His defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer (now HC of Minnesota Vikings) called Petrino ‘a gutless bastard’ for the move.
In Arkansas, Petrino kept winning finishing #5 in the country. His career came to an abrupt halt in the Spring of 2012 when a motorcycle crash unveiled an affair with a university employee who also received preferential treatment to Jessica Dorrell when hiring her to the football staff. As a result Petrino lost his job and much of his reputation. But after a year away from football, Petrino returned to coaching with Western Kentucky for the 2013 season where the Hilltoppers went 8-4 and beat Kentucky.
Upon returning to Louisville Bobby Petrino excited a large percentage of the fanbase. “You get those big scoreboards so you can light it up.” Some fans never did forgive him for leaving in the 1st place.
Petrino when he came back to Louisville did a lot of the right things. He was contrite in some of his mistakes, said he was a changed man, established a foundation that would go on to do a lot of great things in the community. But what went wrong?
Step 1: Bobby Petrino’s twitter account began blocking critical fans.
In the winter of 2014 Louisville fans began noticing that they were blocked by Bobby Petrino on Twitter. Loyal fans, even media. It seemed that no one was immune to being restricted from Petrino’s twitter content. In the end, the Petrino twitter account never tweeted much substance….. BUT it sent a really terrible message to people who have supported Louisville Football before Petrino, during Petrino, after Petrino, and then again when Petrino returned.
It was a bad start. It still is a bad look.
Yours truly was blocked by the Petrino account and told, “Only real Louisville football fans are going to follow Coach Petrino’s twitter account.” My reply to Director of Operations Andy Wagner at the time was, “You don’t know who your friends are.” Eventually Andy and I developed a decent enough relationship and I was unblocked from Petrino’s twitter….but many other fans never received that courtesy.
Step 2: TELL THE STORY OF LOUISVILLE FOOTBALL
The summer of 2016 Bobby Petrino did a media blitz. The entire summer he made an effort to come on local radio shows, he did interviews with various outlets, he was transparent and likable (as much as Bobby can). Fans, media, and the general public knew about what to expect for Louisville Football. It was a breath of fresh air compared to the summer of 2015 when we didn’t know much of what to expect about the Cards when they opened up vs. Auburn.
From there it was slow deterioration of public awareness of what actually was happening inside the program and it was a long way from those feel good stories of past regimes Teddy/Rose, of Jamon Brown signing, of Lorenzo Mauldin’s story, Stefan LeFors family, or any of the other human interest stories that have been told throughout the years.
Also beyond the Reggie Bonnafon/Petrino hug in 2014 after the Notre Dame game, when have we seen emotion on display by the players or coaches? It may have existed. But it’s the responsibility of Louisville Football to tell its story.
As access was restricted fans relationship with the program became almost entirely about wins & losses. We didn’t know about the coaches off the field. We didn’t know about the players off the field. And when losses began piling up there was no buffer of sentiment to protect Bobby Petrino or the people within the program.
Big time programs have designated open practice sessions. They don’t do wooden interviews. Football coaches have to tell their story and let reporters do their jobs. Louisville fans want to connect with their program and they want to be told the truth about what to expect.
They want to see locker room euphoria when something great happens. They want to understand the “WHY” of the coaches, the players, the administration. They want to CONNECT to the energy of the program.
Step 3: Wakeyleaks, Griping About Playoff Rankings, the Houston Game, Heisman Night Shooting, Losing Todd Grantham
This period between November 12, 2016 – January 1, 2017 was one of the more pivotal times in Bobby Petrino’s 2.0 tenure. The Wakeyleaks scandal wherein former Wake Forest player/coach and current radio color analyst Tommy Elrod provided information to Louisville Wide Receivers coach/Offensive Coordinator Lonnie Galloway about individual plays that the Demon Deacons might run. A Louisville game plan was found on the field by Wake Forest who used that information to build a 12-10 advantage going into the 4th quarter. The Louisville coaching staff scrapped everything in between the 3rd & 4th and ripped off a 34-0 4th quarter to seal the win.
But the result was Tommy Elrod being revealed as a disgruntled and undermining ex-employee and a Lonnie Galloway suspension for the bowl game. This was an unnecessary distraction and likely built in paranoia within the coaches about what is possible on the exterior of the program.
Then when the College Football playoff rankings were revealed on Tuesday, November 15 the Cards were ranked #5 in the nation. There was some outrage over Michigan, who had lost that Saturday to an unranked Iowa squad, retained their #3 position from a week prior with the CFP Rankings. Players tweeted the outrage about the rankings and coupled with the Wakeyleaks news breaking the Cards were dealing with a large number of off-the-field distractions on a short preparation week as the Cards had to TRAVEL to Houston on a Thursday night.
What the Cards found on that Thursday night after a 3-day period of distractions was a hornet’s nest. The fans were ready. Tom Herman was looking to cash in and eventually take the Texas job, Ed Oliver was set to make a name for himself nationally and the Cougars dominated the distracted Cards. 11 sacks, 3 turnovers and a beatdown ensued that no one was expecting.
Then Lamar fumbled after the Heisman pose versus Kentucky. And Todd Grantham rushed Devonte Fields out of leverage over and over and over again and the Cards lost its second game in a row.
Then we had Heisman night. The crowning moment of any program. Lamar Jackson had his moment. We were all feeling good and then fans woke up to news that two of its players were shot.
There was almost no juice from the fan base for the Citrus Bowl vs. LSU and the Tigers rolled. Later Todd Grantham would leave for Mississippi State, the Cards would get Peter Sirmon. Losing Grantham would end a 7 of 8 year period with Louisville’s defense being in the Top 25 nationally (carried over from the Charlie Strong era).
After this strange 6 week period Louisville Football was almost entirely different than the wave it was riding 6 weeks prior. The air was out of the program. But it still had Lamar Jackson for 2017 and there was hope that an off-season of not finishing would inspire the team to have a special year.
Step 4: Failure to Replace Todd Grantham
To this day, I believe that fans would be patient to allow Bobby Petrino to develop offense IF the defense was playing well. We saw this phenomenon in 2014 and 2015. But when Todd Grantham swapped with Peter Sirmon a large dent was made in the Petrino legacy. One of the best recruiters on the staff departed, one of the best energy members of the staff departed, and one of the toughest members of the staff departed….. and they were all the same person. Peter Sirmon was an unmitigated disaster. He wasn’t ready to have coordinator responsibility, he didn’t inspire, toughness left the program and his parking space was often empty.
The response to that crater of Peter Sirmon was to hire Brian Van Gorder. Van Gorder’s reputation was in desperate need of repair following a mid-season firing at Notre Dame. There was hope that BVG’s career could be resurrected and at minimum stabilize the Cardinal Defense. And for a brief period of 2018 the defense played OK. But………… then:
554 yards and 66 points vs. Georgia Tech
430 yards and 38 points vs. Boston College
591 yards and 56 points vs. Wake Forest
661 yards and 77 points vs. Clemson
518 yards and 54 points to Syracuse
The bottom fell out. And Louisville fans might be patient to wait for Bobby Petrino to fix the offense. But there came a point where they were no longer patient, or had the confidence that he could select the person who could fix the defense.
Step 5: Failure to Develop a Quarterback post-Lamar Jackson
When Lamar Jackson left the program there was a huge belief that Bobby Petrino could develop either Jawon Pass, Malik Cunningham or perhaps even Jordan Travis. No one expected to see anything resembling Lamar Jackson, but I think most fans would have been happy with a Hunter Cantwell caliber player. Bobby Petrino had never failed in any of his tenure’s to develop a QB. Jawon Pass was a player that he hand-picked. Pass has been in the program for 3 seasons and while it seems that Pass does show some promise, it appears that he is going to realize his potential on his own timetable.
Petrino tried to speed Jawon Pass up, asked him to walk faster, asked him to make decisions faster. But Pass is determined to move at his own pace. So Petrino turned the reigns over to Malik Cunningham for a time who looked to still be raw in his development. Then he tried Jordan Travis in critical moments and Travis was still very green.
Later, Travis would go on to leave the program and would express a great deal of frustration upon his exit with his expectations of the program not being met.
If a program hires Bobby Petrino and 5 years later doesn’t have a Quarterback ready….. then what are we doing?
Step 6: Chris Klenakis & Kemari Averett Troubles
Step 6 is a manageable for most coaches…. and UofL dealt with both situations appropriately……. But it is never a good thing when one of our top position coaches gets a DUI at the conclusion of Fall Camp. It’s also not a good look when one of the most promising young players in the program has run-ins with two separate women during camp and during the season. They are bad looks for the program and both situations came at critically bad times for Bobby Petrino.
Step 7: The Staff
There is no denying the staff turnover during the 5 year tenure of Bobby Petrino 2.0.
Garrick McGee, Todd Grantham, Tony Grantham, Lamar Thomas, Terrell Buckley, Greg Brown, Cort Dennison, Keith Hayward, Peter Sirmon all left the program.
When Garrick McGee left. He was replaced with Nick Petrino. When Cort Dennison left he was replaced with Ryan Beard. Family. And that’s fine. But it better work.
When Lamar Thomas left the program, he did so after having brought Lamar Jackson to UofL and did so very loudly. Greg Brown was the same way. Both coaches were very unhappy upon departure sending signals nationally that working for Coach Petrino wasn’t a pleasant experience. It was becoming more and more difficult for Bobby Petrino to attract top-level assistant coaches. The discontent was bleeding over into the roster and on the field it was clear that the level of play was dropping exponentially.
In the end Bobby Petrino was a long way from nearly landing Kevin Steele and settling on Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator. Will Stein was on staff in 2014 and spent a considerable amount of time at Texas and is now an offensive coordinator at a 6-A powerhouse high school program in Texas.
Cort Dennison was Louisville’s main recruiter over the past few seasons and wanted the DC job post-Sirmon went to Oregon reluctantly and has been poaching top-level recruits from UofL and other programs around the country. Keith Hayward is there with him doing the same. Terrell Buckley helped Mississippi State beat Louisville in the Gator Bowl last year and is still there. Todd Grantham is helping Dan Mullen resurrect Florida. Tony Grantham is back at Navy.
Step 8: The Toughness Left the Program, The Players Stopped Listening and Believing
Bobby Petrino mentioned that the ‘light’ went out of the players eyes during the Clemson game. I’d argue that the light started losing filament at the end of 2016, then took a major hit during the 2017 Boston College game, and went completely out after the Florida State loss this season.
UofL Football didn’t like contact in 2018. It was evident during the Alabama game. The effort was historically bad. Vince Tyra noted the effort level during Sunday’s press conference and I couldn’t agree more.
While it is up to individual players to light their own fire, coaches can extinguish a player’s fire as well. And it wasn’t there. The players weren’t focused. It was clear they didn’t believe. They weren’t inspired. And neither was the fanbase. The next thing you know the players are complaining about fans showing up to CardMarch, fans point out a lack of execution and effort and everyone is unhappy.
Football is a sport that requires toughness. It requires belief in coaching, in teammates, and from within. Louisville lost that. Louisville has played like a team without pride, without its heart. The 2018 Louisville team disrespected football, disrespected itself and got what it deserved. Beatdowns.
Step 9: The Margins
A football program can block its fans on social media. A program can restrict the public’s access to THE FANS program. The program can even have one of the most strange 6 week periods you’ll ever see in football with scandal, rankings gripes, players getting shot and a handful of head scratching losses. A program can have a coaching turnover, it can have blips in player development, it can have problems DURING FALL CAMP with its coaches and players, a program can hire every aunt, uncle and son-in-law it can find……. but it can’t lose it’s toughness, discipline and belief. Losing all of that… having all of this leads to getting HOUSED. And ultimately losing and the MARGINS of loss are unacceptable:
51-14. 37 points to Alabama
27-3. 24 points to Virginia
66-31. 35 points to Georgia Tech
38-20. 18 points to Boston College
56-35. 21 points to Wake Forest
77-16. 61 points to Clemson
54-23. 31 points to Syracuse
Bobby Petrino’s tenure at Louisville was extinguished in due to multiple factors. He didn’t build any goodwill outside the results on the field. He struggled to retain the attention, focus and hearts of his players…. and ultimately the fans. He lost. 3 months ago I never thought we would be here. But here we are….. at the bottom. And Bobby had to go.