When Charlie Strong left Louisville for Texas in 2014, Tom Jurich said that Bobby Petrino was on his list of potential replacements but not at the top. Jurich had repaired his relationship with Petrino but maybe not enough that he would be the immediate choice to hand the keys to a football program on the rise. But, I think he did so for the same reason that most fans got on board with the hire. He wanted to see the scoreboard explode. Petrino has been labeled as an “offensive genius” for years now and the numbers back that up. However, things haven’t gone totally as planned. While Louisville set a school record for total yardage this year, they also finished with a very underwhelming 8 wins. That includes a best win (on paper) against Kentucky.
This should have been “the year”. Louisville returned their first Heisman winner and had an extremely manageable schedule. The defense returned most of the starters from the previous year as well as guys that contributed. Everything lined up for what should have been a season with double digit wins. Instead, Louisville ended up finishing the season with one win against a team with more than six regular season wins.
To me, this season ended up being a very good example of some of my fears for the program when Bobby Petrino was brought back. I think that a lot of people focused on the scandals that Petrino brought on himself and worried if he had changed. That wasn’t a question for me. Quite honestly, I don’t think anyone is that stupid. I also trusted Tom Jurich to be 100% sure that he could trust Bobby again even if I didn’t like the decision to bring him back.
What worried me is the fact that Petrino has never shown an interest in coaching both sides of the ball. I also worried that he wouldn’t be able to recruit at the level that you have to at a school like Louisville. It’s not easy to get top talent to to leave home for Kentucky. I think those two issues came to light with the lack of playmakers on the defense this year. Throw in the lack of an upgrade in talent almost anywhere on defense since the new staff took over, too. I’d imagine that most saw a dropoff with an offensive coach taking over, but the reaction to this year’s defense showed that most didn’t realize how bad it could be.
That brings me to my next concern. Coaches aren’t knocking down the door to be on Bobby Petrino’s staff. Petrino has burned a lot of bridges, but more than that, he’s not built a good reputation among coaches. The only coaches that have lasted all four years with this program are Chris Klenakis and guys who are either related to Petrino and/or played for him. Multiple former coaches have been openly critical of how things went during their time here, also. Hell, Todd Grantham recently did an interview with the CJ and admitted to taking a huge pay cut just to get away. That’s also how you end up giving Peter Sirmon a raise to make your defense worse.
This isn’t meant to be an “I told you so” post because even I didn’t know for sure that this was coming. I thought this would be how the program would look under Petrino but his track record was plenty good enough for me to know that I was an outlier in that thinking. But nothing that happened this season was surprising to me at all. The offense put up a ton of yardage but didn’t have enough firepower to find another option outside of Lamar Jackson. Petrino’s “offensive genius” moniker was thrown out during every broadcast while we all watched an offense with very little creativity. Glaring issues that we saw in year one are still issues going into year five. The defense has been talked about enough but it probably needs to be pointed out again just how poorly they played compared to the previous years. As much as this season felt like a missed opportunity, it also felt like an inevitability.
Things can obviously get better for the program with recruiting seeing a uptick and no rumored coaching turnover this year. Peter Sirmon might have more success in year two with a group that fully understands his scheme. Petrino might have focused too much on Lamar Jackson and we could see things get back to more of a balanced attack on offense. Petrino’s penchant for bringing in overlooked talent during his first stint could end up paying off now. I’m not near a point where I feel that all is lost but Louisville football is kind of stuck in the mud at this point. I don’t think that was what most expected four years back.
I once wrote about how we should have high expectations for this program. My view hasn’t changed at all. Honestly, my expectations are higher. Louisville had one of the best college football players in recent memory over the last two years and they came away with one win of significance. The first part there is why my expectations are high. The second part is why they haven’t been met. The opportunity and potential is there for this program to take the next step. The question now is can they actually do it?