Chances are, Bobby Petrino could stuff a three-ring binder full of notes that perfectly illustrate how to successfully maneuver around the two biggest challenges the Louisville football program faces when it moves into the ACC for the 2014 season.
Because Petrino has faced them both.
Back in his first stint as Cardinals coach, he shepherded Louisville from Conference USA to the Big East. Within two years, Louisville was in a BCS game.
Then at Arkansas, he quickly made the Hogs competitive in one of the toughest divisions in college football: the SEC West. Within three years, Arkansas went 6-2 in league play and made an appearance in the Sugar Bowl.
Now, of course, Louisville is hoping for the same on-field success in its new league home, playing in the ACC’s most difficult division, which features national champion Florida State and Orange Bowl champion Clemson.
Though Louisville figured to be making the transition under former coach Charlie Strong, athletic director Tom Jurich made quite a strategic hire when he gave Petrino a second chance to lead the program last month.
Jurich said in a recent interview that the biggest factor in his decision to re-hire Petrino centered on whether the coach had learned from well-documented previous mistakes and indiscretions. There was no need for Jurich to delve into on-field success.
“He knows what he’s looking at,” Jurich said.
Petrino gives Louisville even more cachet than it had a month and a half ago, when the Cardinals pounded Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl, serving notice to the rest of the ACC. Of the nine teams that have changed conferences since 2012, three had first-year head coaches. Of those three, Petrino is the only one with previous head-coaching experience on the "power five"-conference level, and his experience came in the most powerful conference in America.
Not only that, Louisville brings with it a terrific track record of recent success, posting back-to-back 11-win seasons. In fact, four of the five 11-win seasons in school history either happened in the past two years or under Petrino. That makes Louisville better positioned for immediate success than former Big East mates Pitt and Syracuse, which transitioned into the ACC last year.
But there is little doubt that Louisville faces a steep rise in level of competition, one that raises many questions headed into the first season. Louisville has three teams on its schedule projected to start the season in the Top 25. The last time it had to play that many ranked teams in one season was 2008, when the program was struggling under Steve Kragthorpe. In the past five seasons, Louisville has played just four teams ranked in the Top 25 at the time of the matchup.
Now, the Cardinals will play Florida State and Clemson every year.
“The thing they’ve got a head start on us [in] is their tradition. They have a long history,” Jurich said. “Our history is fairly recent, but our last 15 years we could go head to head with anybody in college football or any sport across the board. We want to make sure we continue to grow off that. We’ve got a good foundation in place and I don’t want to say any more than a really good foundation. We want to keep building and building.”
Building requires taking a look at the competition ahead. Petrino said in a phone interview that the work has already begun breaking down teams in the ACC, so the coaches know what types of offenses and defenses they will be facing.
“The one thing that makes it harder is the league is so competitive week in and week out so you have to have the depth and develop young men,” Petrino said. “We’ll have to have some guys that can play early. Some conferences you’re in, you have two or three games a year where if you don’t make mistakes, you should win the game because you have better players than they do.
“But this is going to be very competitive. Everyone’s going to have very good players, everyone’s going to be really well coached, and that’s what makes the challenge a lot of fun.”
Petrino has lived through those challenges, and he believes he can help prepare his players because of his own experiences. Coaching in the SEC can be a teaching tool for coaching in the ACC, especially on the road. Louisville has to play at Death Valley and Notre Dame this year.
“In the SEC it was so competitive, so you had to really understand how to get your team ready each week and be able to go on the road and handle the noise and the crowd and the hostility,” Petrino said. “We have some great road games; there will be great crowds. You have to be able to perform under the pressure with the crowd there and be able to communicate, and use your hand signals and operate when you really can’t hear anything, so you take a lot of those experiences with you.”
Petrino’s background and track record can only do so much. Louisville has to replace a potential top-five NFL draft pick in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and seven starters on defense. Given the tougher schedule, new coaching staff and new-look team, can the Cardinals realistically be a weekly Top 25 team in contention for a league title?
“We’re going to have high expectations,” Petrino said. “That’s something I believe in, is setting your expectations high. We want to get in position to compete for the conference championship.”
Spoken like a coach who has been there, done that.