Exactly two years ago this week, Louisville made its College Football Playoff push. Behind future Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and a string of blowout victories, the Cards sat at No. 5 in the playoff rankings, with a last-second loss to eventual champion Clemson as its only blemish.
Could unheralded, upstart Louisville challenge conventional wisdom and possibly make it into the CFP as a one-loss nonconference champion? The debate raged until a Thursday night in Houston. Louisville looked like a lost, disorganized, uninterested team and got blown out 36-10, squandering not only its playoff hopes but a New Year’s Six game, too.
As it turns out, that game was the beginning of the end for Bobby Petrino, fired Sunday from his second stint at Louisville.
“If you want to say culture equals effort, then something screwy was going on,” athletic director Vince Tyra said on Sunday. “Because the effort wasn’t what it has been historically. … The players can’t hide that. It shows up on film.”
It was hard to tell at the time, of course. Jackson papered over the cracks that are now obvious in hindsight. Jackson became such a focal point — from his Lamar Leap to his speed to his game-changing ability to his record-setting career — that the only conversation about Louisville began and ended with him.
In reality, Louisville had major issues that Petrino either would not fix or could not fix, and nobody really bothered to delve deeper for two reasons. Not only did Jackson help mask the weaknesses both on the team and inside the program, athletic director Tom Jurich stood as Petrino’s powerful protector. Even though Petrino burned Jurich the first time he coached at Louisville, Jurich rehired him in 2014, gave him a $4 million contract with an extremely generous buyout clause (Louisville owes Petrino more than $14 million now) and vowed repeatedly this time would be different.
But inside the locker room, a different story emerged. Assistant coaches started leaving, some for lateral moves, after issues with Petrino.
Louisville closed 2016 with three straight losses, finishing with an embarrassing performance in the Citrus Bowl against LSU, scoring just nine points. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who repeatedly clashed with Petrino, left for Mississippi State. Petrino hired Peter Sirmon from Mississippi State, and that hire revealed maybe things in Louisville were not so rosy: In Sirmon’s lone season as defensive coordinator in Starkville, the defense ranked No. 103. Is that the best Petrino could do?
Meanwhile, Petrino hired longtime friend Mike Summers to fix the biggest weakness on the team, the offensive line. When Jackson won the Heisman in 2016, he was sacked 47 times. But even a reorganized staff could not put the brakes on what ended up to be a disappointing 2017: an 8-5 record that ended with another bowl loss.
So essentially, the Lamar Jackson era yielded zero division championships, zero conference championships, zero New Year’s Six appearances and one bowl win.
Jurich was fired midway through the 2017 season, so Petrino lost the biggest supporter he had on campus. Heading into 2018, many more questions remained. How would Louisville fare without Jackson? And how would the defense do with yet another coordinator, this time Brian Van Gorder, who had been fired from his last defensive coordinator job at Notre Dame? It was also hard to ignore that Petrino’s staff included his son, Nick, and two son-in-laws.
Petrino did not exactly help himself when he told reporters at the ACC Kickoff that he expected his offense to be better this season with new quarterback Jawon Pass.
“I expect us to be better,” Petrino said at the time. “I expect us to be more balanced, the ability to get more guys involved, particularly in the running game. I really like our receiving corps coming back. I really think it’s one of the strongest corps coming back.
Players did not help themselves, either, when they trash-talked Alabama before the season opener.
On a rainy September night in Orlando, Louisville stepped onto the field to begin the 2018 season, clearly confident. But Alabama buried them in an avalanche of points, winning 51-14. It became clear this team was not anywhere near better with Pass under center. Two weeks later, Louisville needed a late comeback to beat Western Kentucky, and Petrino had no clear answer at quarterback as he waffled between Pass and Malik Cunningham.
The offensive line remained a glaring weak point, and a lack of player development in five seasons spoke more about the staff than anything. The team had no established running back or run game. The defense looked exactly the way you’d expect from a unit playing under its third coordinator in three years.
Then ACC play began, and Louisville looked like a team with no direction, competitive fire or leadership. Recruits started decommitting and two high-profile players — cornerback Russ Yeast and quarterback Jordan Travis — announced they would transfer.
On the first Saturday in November, Louisville visited Clemson. The last time the Cards played at Death Valley, they went in as the favorite, with Jackson as the quarterback. They came up 1 yard short on fourth-and-12 deep inside Clemson territory in a heartbreaking 42-36 loss.
But this time, Clemson went in as a nearly 40-point favorite as speculation swirled about whether Petrino would survive the season. By halftime, Clemson led 35-3. Athletic director Vince Tyra was on the sideline in the first half listening in on the defensive huddle, and then he went into the locker room at halftime.
During a quiet moment inside his box before the third quarter began, Tyra repeated he did not anticipate having to make this decision when he took over as athletic director just a year ago. All he wanted to see was some momentum, better execution, a will to win that seemed entirely drained from the program. Though Tyra would not say one way or the other what he would do, it felt as if he did not have a choice.
Louisville lost 77-16, allowing 50 or more points for the third time in four games.
Afterward, Petrino was tight-lipped when asked whether he feared for his job security.
“I’m just trying to coach one game at a time,” Petrino said.
Receiver Jaylen Smith implied this team was not mentally tough compared to the one that nearly beat Clemson two years ago.
“Clemson has potentially like seven first-rounders on their team, six on defense, so I think that’s another mental thing, it’s a toughness, being mentally tough, being able to weather that storm and play against those guys and know that we can compete,” said Smith, who was on the Louisville team in 2016. “We’re all in the same conference, we all have the same opportunities, we’re all here for a reason, so use your platform to show that you belong.”
When asked to point out the biggest difference between Louisville then and now, Smith said, “Execution. That’s the main thing. I’d say we were probably a little tougher back then, too, but execution is the main thing. The way we used to be able to adjust to any little thing and make different halftime or drive adjustments was incredible. Also, we had one of the best quarterbacks to ever play football. He could do so much, and it was just a want-to to be great, a want to make the next man better. So when you have five guys on the O-line who all want to be better than each other, it makes for great competition and great performances on Saturday. Same with the receivers, running backs, defense as well.”
Smith did not have to say any more than that to paint a complete picture. Everyone vowed there would be no quit in this team, but your eyes told you something completely different.
Earlier this week, just days after the embarrassing loss to Clemson, Louisville lost 54-23 at Syracuse — in the same dome that launched Jackson’s Heisman run in 2016.
Back then, nobody could have predicted the way this all would end. But once it went bad, it went really bad — and Petrino couldn’t do anything about it.