Bobby Petrino to lead Louisville from AAC into tougher ACC

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After almost two years in a sort of exile, Bobby Petrino will be back in the spotlight this fall -- and at the place where he first made a name for himself.

Petrino, 53, was hired as Louisville's coach in January to replace Charlie Strong, and Petrino and Louisville officials hope he can have the same kind of success in his second go-round at the school. He guided Louisville to a 41-9 mark as coach from 2003-06, winning two conference titles and taking the Cardinals to four bowls, including the Orange after the 2006 season.

Between then and now, though, Petrino has had some setbacks. There was an ill-fated stint as coach of the Atlanta Falcons; he lasted less than a full season and basically skulked out of town 13 games into the 2007 season. He quickly resurfaced at Arkansas and was 34-17 in four seasons with the Razorbacks, including a Sugar Bowl appearance after the 2010 season. But after guiding the Hogs to 11 wins in 2011, he was fired in April 2012 for lying to his boss, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, about his relationship with a female employee in the aftermath of a motorcycle crash.

He sat out the 2012 season, then resurfaced in 2013 at Western Kentucky. One year later, after rehabbing his image enough for Louisville AD Tom Jurich, he is back with the Cardinals.

"I think there's no doubt it's a second chance," Petrino said Monday at the ACC Kickoff media event in Greensboro, N.C. "And I'm very fortunate and very appreciative of Tom Jurich and (school president) Dr. (James) Ramsey in giving me this opportunity, and very excited and motivated to have the challenge ahead of us. I've certainly grown and changed throughout the years in things that I've experienced and things that I've caused myself."

While Louisville's fortunes ebbed after Petrino's departure in 2006, the program was righted by Strong and is coming off back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins -- 11 in 2012 and 12 in '13 -- and arguably has regained the footing it had under Petrino.

"I've been fortunate both times I came to Louisville to follow two really good head coaches that have done a great job in building the program," Petrino said Monday. "I felt when I got there with John L. (Smith in 2003) that the program was in great shape, and all I had to do was take it to the next level. Coming in and following Charlie, he's done a great job of recruiting and teaching the kids how to work hard and win games. We do lose some really good players. There's three first-round draft picks that we lose off that team, but we definitely have some really good players coming back and have a good nucleus of talent."

One big difference is that when he took over for Smith, Louisville was in Conference USA. Petrino was the coach when the school moved from C-USA into the Big East, and now is the coach tasked with leading the Cardinals from the AAC into the ACC.

While the Cardinals have won 23 games in the past two seasons, Petrino is going to change things.

"When I got the job, we had our first team meeting, I congratulated the young men on how much success they've had, and told them that things are going to be different," he said. "They're going to be different because our new staff is going to come in and coach what we know, and that's different than what Coach Strong and his staff know. But the quicker that we adjust to change, the quicker that we are not resistant to change and we get moving forward, the better chance we have in becoming champions."

Petrino and his staff have some solid returning talent, most notably wide receiver DeVante Parker and outside linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin. In addition, the offensive line looks good, both starting corners return and there is a nice group of linebackers as Louisville transitions from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

One issue is quarterback, where sophomore Will Gardner takes over for first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, now with the Minnesota Vikings. Petrino calls Gardner an "inexperienced, talented guy." Gardner played in seven games and attempted 12 passes last season.

"Will is a very good-sized young man: He's 6-5, just under 230," Petrino said. "It's our strength and conditioning staff's job to make sure he doesn't hit the '3-0.' We just want to make sure he stays under that because he has had a knee injury, and I think he'll perform better and stay healthier if he keeps his weight down. ...

"He can make all the throws you need to make. He's got the arm strength. He's got a very quick release. We've got to continue to work on his footwork with his lower body, getting it in the right positions for his accuracy to be where we want it. But he's very coachable."

Parker vouches for his new quarterback. "He's got an arm," Parker said, noting that the ball "comes in harder" from Gardner than it did from Bridgewater.

Parker also is excited about Petrino's offense, saying, "he likes to get the ball to his receivers." Parker expects to line up in a variety of spots on the outside and says he basically will be running the same routes he ran under the former staff but from different formations.

Petrino's offense was his calling card in his first stint with Louisville and that's not likely to change. Whether he has the same type of success, though, likely depends on how well the Cardinals play defense, which was their calling card under Strong.

Despite the step up in competition from the AAC to the ACC, "we expect to compete for a championship," Petrino said. "That's what we want to get done."

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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