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Bobby Petrino Fired at Louisville

By Jim Johnson
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Bobby Petrino is out at Louisville. Here are some of the best candidates to replace him.

Bobby Petrino is officially, finally out at Louisville after leading(?) the Cardinals to their worst record through ten games since Ron Cooper’s 1-9 start in 1997. In fairness, he got fired too.

This may have been more of a long time coming than anyone even realized. His second stint started well enough, going 9-4 during the program’s first season in the ACC, despite underwhelming quarterback play and only decent surrounding talent, not to mention some unfortunate injury luck.

An 8-5 showing the following season, and another 5-3 record in conference play, promised a bright future behind Lamar Jackson, especially considering how limited the then-freshman’s understanding of the playbook was.

Yet, even with a fully formed Jackson, someone that I called the best player in college football history, Petrino failed to manage double digit wins in either of the following two seasons. They went 9-4 during Jackson’s 2016 Heisman season and finished the season ranked 12th in S&P+. All but one of the teams ahead of them in S&P+ won at least ten games that year, as did 16 lower rated squads.

Then, in 2017, behind a top five S&P+ Jackson-led offense, the team ranked 16th in S&P+, despite ending up 84th in defense. This time, all 15 more highly rated teams hit the ten win mark, as did another eleven teams below Louisville.

I, apparently stupidly, predicted that even after losing the best college football player ever, Louisville’s offense would not significantly regress in 2018. It’s remarkable to think that I, of all people, may have actually underrated Lamar Jackson’s impact, and I shudder to consider just how bad Louisville would have been a year ago without him.

This bad. They would be this bad, I suppose. Currently sitting at a smooth 104th in overall S&P+, the Cards are just a few spots behind the likes of traditional powers Old Dominion, New Mexico and Tulsa.

It may be unfair to criticize Petrino for what the team would have looked like without the B.O.A.T., given that Louisville did, in fact, have him, and Petrino deserves some credit for that. However, by that same token, it’s totally justifiable to note his failure to capitalize on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not only while Jackson was in school, but as a means of expanding the brand of the program after his departure.

For example, as one of the hottest teams in the nation, with the coolest, most exciting weapons in the sport, Louisville’s successive recruiting classes from the time he won the Heisman to now have ranked 6th in the ACC, 7th, and currently sits at 13th in the conference.

In other words, quietly, it’s been time for a change for quite awhile.

With that in mind, here are the first five names on my shortlist of replacements if I’m Vince Tyra (listed alphabetically):

Jeff Brohm

This is the one everyone in Louisville wants. A former Cardinal himself, Brohm has raised the profile of every school he’s coached. This also wouldn’t be the first time he’s taken over for a Bobby Petrino-led team. He was the offensive coordinator for during Petrino’s one-and-done stint at Western Kentucky in 2013. A year later, with Brohm as the head coach, the Hilltoppers went 8-5, before ripping off consecutive double digit win seasons. Now at Purdue, though he’s 5-5 after going 7-6 a year ago, he’s on pace for his consecutive top 41 S&P+ finish, just a couple of seasons removed from Purdue ranking 105th in S&P+, before acquiring his services.

This is a double edged sword, though. An ex-Louisville player, Brohm would be granted the sort of leeway that most new coaches are not. That could come to fruition in any number of ways, from increased fan support to, perhaps, more time than would be granted to someone without program ties. That extra patience can be the difference in consistency needed to establish a winning infrastructure, especially in the win-now landscape of modern college football. On the flip side, though, if Brohm proves not to be the guy, things can get a bit awkward. No one wants to have to fire a program great, and if the divorce gets messy, it reflects poorly on everyone involved.

Neal Brown

How on earth is this guy still at Troy? He’s been one of the hottest G5 head coaches for a few years now, his name constantly popping up in potential candidate stories, like this one, and yet he remains in the Sun Belt, dominating. He had a top 20 S&P+ defense in the nation last year. He’s won at least ten games in each of the last two seasons, and will likely do so again. Troy’s not even one of the best recruiting teams in their league, and he has still managed to establish a level of consistency almost unparalleled in the conference.

He has ties to the state, born in Danville, and serving as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator from 2013 to 2014, prior to taking his current job. He’s beaten traditional P5 powers LSU and Nebraska on the road in consecutive seasons. It’s only a matter of time before he gets a Power Five job. If nothing else, Brown brings consistency and a winning demeanor that few other coaches can offer. He may not have as high a ceiling as some on the list, but he probably has a higher floor, and under the current circumstances at the program, that may be more important.

Manny Diaz

This is not one I’ve seen mentioned anywhere else. This is more of a pet theory of mine. Looking at the things that went wrong with the Petrino regime, it would stand to reason that going the total opposite direction makes sense. Bobby Petrino is a swaggerless, offensive -minded coach that oversaw Louisville’s once-lit defense devolve into one of the worst in college football. Diaz’s defenses at Miami, even with their current struggles, have been among college football’s best, finishing in the top 25 in defensive S&P+ in both 2016 and 2017 at “The U”, currently in the top 20, and ending up in the top 20 in his one year at Mississippi State.

He has coached under the likes of Dan Mullen and Mark Richt, most recently, two of the most consistently effective winners in college football. He oversaw the advent and proliferation of the Turnover Chain, arguably the most important thing in the history of the sport. And he can recruit the hell out of Florida, which is the only thing that matters. All good players come from Florida. Lamar Jackson is from Florida. Manny Diaz is from Florida. Do the math.

Josh Heupel

I’ve seen a lot of people mention Luke Fickell as a possible replacement, and he has put together a remarkable turnaround in his second year at Cincinnati, but I’m more partial to the current UCF head coach when it comes to checking the inexperienced G5 hot name box. Heupel is an offensive wizard. At Missouri, he oversaw one of the most prolific offenses in the country, and made Drew Lock one of the top prospects, entering the season, for the 2019 NFL Draft. It was clear to anyone watching last year that it was actually Heupel, not Lock, that was the most valuable asset to their success. Now, with Derek Dooley doing Derek Dooley things, Lock has regressed, is no longer considered to be a first rounder by many evaluators, and the true MVP is more clear.

While Brown addresses some of the leadership concerns of Petrino, and Diaz does the same for the defense, Heupel touches on perhaps the next biggest deficiency -- offensive line play. Less a result of development along the offensive front, Heupel’s units regularly rank near the top of the FBS in most advanced blocking metrics, not because of superior talent, but because of scheme. His offense should also translate with some immediacy. Receivers, can you run a nine route and a comeback? Super, you’re good. Quarterbacks, can you look at the sideline so I can tell you who’s going to be open, and then get the ball out quickly? Awesome. That’s it. It’s lethal, beautiful simplicity. Not in the Willie Taggart way, either. Like, it’s actually lethal. He’s also still got UCF undefeated, and although they haven’t played anyone, math should have caught up to them by now. No one goes unbeaten in consecutive seasons. It still could, but it hasn’t yet, and that’s pretty incredible from a sheer probability standpoint.

Charlie Strong

Redux SZN. It wouldn’t be the first time that Louisville went back to the well. Strong is almost certainly ready to rejoin the ranks of the Power Five, and has a unique opportunity to do so at a school that he has previously coached, when it wasn’t in a power conference. In his first go-round, he led the Cardinals to two of their five winningest seasons ever. Since his departure, he has only enhanced his Florida ties, which, as previously stated, is the only thing that matters in college football. Teddy Bridgewater is from South Florida. Strong literally coaches at South Florida. Do the math.

Seriously though, using S&P+ as the barometer, the Cardinal defense improved almost every year during Strong’s tenure, culminating in the #7 S&P+ defense in 2013. His first defense at South Florida, in 2017, ranked 28th in S&P+. Even this year, after losing Quinton Flowers, one of the better, more productive college quarterbacks in recent memory, he has the Bulls within striking distance of another ten win season. I know all of the fans want Jeff Brohm, but honestly, I think Strong might be the best choice.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP