LOUISVILLE, Ky. – With 103 seconds left in a game Louisville had locked up, there was a momentary timeout on the field. That's when the chant started up from the south end zone of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
"Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!"
Bobby Petrino, the people's choice to lead Louisville's overachieving football program as it steps up into the Atlantic Coast Conference, admitted hearing the chant from the black-clad masses. He said this was the most nervous he'd ever been before a game, and now the nerves were gone and the game was won and the fan approval washed over him like a warm bath.
He'd just ordered up a Petrino Special – after hammering Miami with six straight runs, he called a play-action pass on third-and-1 to a wide-open tight end for the final points in a 31-13 Cardinals thumping. The first night in the ACC was complete. The Prodigal Petrino and his platinum playbook had come home and been accepted with open arms.
At a time when his reputation was radioactive, the fans here wanted him when Charlie Strong left for Texas. They wanted him with very few qualms, even if he basically wiped his feet on Louisville during his first tenure here from 2003-06.
In running his college career record to 10-0 in season openers Monday night, Petrino gave the nation a reminder why he's embraced here.
"The one thing we definitely know," athletic director Tom Jurich said, "he didn't lose it as a coach."
After the infamous Harley crash and the two years in exile – one out of the sport and a second at low-major Western Kentucky – Petrino still has it. Still has the ability to gameplan, to teach the game and to call plays like few others in the profession. That is why Jurich, with a program-altering conference change at hand, absorbed the national PR hit and hired back the unreliable man who went 41-9 in his first stint at Louisville.
Petrino is the guy who could put a record crowd of 55,428 in the seats – and have a notoriously late-arriving crowd there for the opening kickoff. And after a surprising three-and-out on the first possession, he gave them what they came to see.
The second possession was vintage Petrino: 93 yards in 12 plays, seven runs and five passes, hitting the Hurricanes from a variety of formations and with a variety of personnel groups. Sophomore Will Gardner, in his first college start, looked like every other Petrino quarterback – confident and crisp and taking what the defense couldn't cover.
"We looked like Bobby Ball," Jurich said.
"That was fun," Gardner said. "Just throwing the ball around, completion after completion, guys wide open, good protection."
Previous quarterbacks like Stefan LeFors (who led the nation in pass efficiency in 2003), Brian Brohm, Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson probably recognized that drive. They led a few of those as Petrino's quarterbacks at Louisville and Arkansas. Gardner's first-start numbers (20-28 for 206 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions) are comparable to the debuts of all those quarterbacks who went on to have great seasons.
There were some struggles between then and the end – two fumbles by Gardner, some spotty run blocking, a key dropped pass. Louisville needed a physical, aggressive defensive performance from a unit that led the nation in total defense last year to snuff out the Hurricanes, and a momentum-altering kickoff return touchdown in the second quarter.
But then there was the last drive that was vintage Petrino, too: a 14-play, 67-yard meat grinder that was heavy on physical running by Dominique Brown (a manly 33 carries for 143 yards on the night). It bled nearly eight minutes off the clock, effectively ending the game.
"We call that 'Run to Win,' " Petrino said, adding that the team has a practice period every Thursday of game week called "Run To Win" in which they practice killing the clock.
That was the one capped by the "Bobby" chants from the fans. Much of the rest of America has no interest in chanting Petrino's name or seeing him win – but here, they don't much care about the coach's approval rating outside the city.
He's their guy.
After the final gun, Petrino shook Miami coach Al Golden's hand (and perhaps thanked him for playing a true freshman quarterback) at midfield. Then he found his family. His affair and firing put them through a terrible public ordeal, but there was the entire family – wife Becky and kids – at the 35-yard line waiting to embrace him after this homecoming win. If they can stand with him, then it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks.
"Wow!" Petrino exclaimed, beaming. And this is not a man who beams often.
Jurich was beaming on the sideline, too. Petrino now lives two doors down from him in a suburban subdivision, so the athletic director sees him away from campus as well. He insists that things are different this time around.
"I like who he's become," Jurich said. "He's at peace with himself."
If Bobby Petrino is becoming someone different outside the stadium, he's the same beautiful mind inside it. And that's why Louisville fans were joyfully chanting his name here Monday night.
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