LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- They're seeing a show in Arkansas that also had a three-year run in Louisville. Bobby Petrino is no easy act to follow.
We're not talking about the NFL, where schemes are uniformly sophisticated and talent takes over. But at the college level, when Petrino walks out the door, the vacuum left is considerable.
At the University of Louisville, Petrino left a stable of starters -- including 10 players on offense alone who would eventually be drafted into the NFL -- but the best they could do was a 6-6 record in the season after he left and worse in the two seasons after. At Arkansas, John L. Smith took a team with SEC championship aspirations under Petrino and, in the wake of a scandal that cost Petrino his job, is going to be lucky to keep the program above water.
While the situations aren't identical, they are related. I don't know the particulars at Arkansas like I do at Louisville, but some at Louisville might shed light on what is happening now.
In Louisville, Petrino bolted for the Atlanta Falcons but left a strong returning core from a team that won the Orange Bowl. Into his place went Steve Kragthorpe, who had worked wonders at Tulsa and whose offensive reputation was as good as any up-and-coming coach in the college game.
And the Cardinals did put up good offensive numbers in his first season -- good enough to be a top-10 offense nationally. But the program was already beginning to fray at the edges. Why?
It started with some small items fans wouldn't normally notice. From distributing the meal money in a different way to the level of offensive preparation detail or the approach to discipline, factors compounded to derail the transition.
I'm going to relay some incidents that were told to me by former players well after the fact, none of whom would agree to be identified. But they're examples of the kind of change that can lead to difficulties.
Under Petrino, something like a cell phone ringing in the offensive meeting room was a major infraction. If Paul Petrino heard a phone ring in one of his meetings, there was no telling what might happen. Forget confiscation, the phone would be lucky to survive, and the player might feel lucky to survive. In the first offensive meeting under Charlie Stubbs, Kragthorpe's new offensive coordinator, a phone rang, and players sat up in their seats, cringing almost reflexively. Stubbs stopped speaking, the phone rang once more before it could be silenced, there was an expectant moment of quiet, then he continued without acknowledging it.
It was a new day.
Even before that, the change was evident. The first time one position group showed up for some "voluntary" skeleton drills such as all teams run during the summer, they started to run the drills outlined on a sheet for them by the new coaches. About 15-20 minutes in, one player said to the other, "That's it." The others were confused. These were 45-minute or 1-hour drills under the predecessors. They'd gotten to the end of the list in a fraction of that time. They ran through the drills three more times, then stopped.
Wide receivers, accustomed to a precision attack in which coaches would literally measure out the steps that each player would run before cutting or making a move in his route, now were told, instead of how many steps, to go out seven yards and curl, or whatever the route was. The result was routes that wound up growing less precise.
Now it's important to understand, there was nothing negligent or substandard on the part of the new staff. The way they were doing it was the way staffs were doing it throughout much of college football. But Petrino has been successful not just because he sweats the small stuff, but because he obsesses over it.
He had assistants staying in the U of L football complex until 11 p.m. over the summer going over game film of teams they wouldn't play for three months.
Players derived a great deal of confidence from the offensive game plan. During coaches' meetings, assistants would each propose their "scoring plays" of the week, those they determined would be most likely to break for big gains or scores. When an agreement was reached, they'd tell the team in running through the script of the first 15 or 20 plays, "This is the touchdown play."
The staff was right so many times that players began to believe them when they told them a particular play was going to score. And the offense was so effective that players derived confidence from that. Eric Wood, a center at the time, told me for a story I did for the newspaper, "We just can't wait to see what they have planned every week. You really look forward to seeing the game plan to see what they've found to attack."
I remember sitting with Wood in the film room one summer, and he was operating video of Miami, explaining not only their line schemes but their pass coverages. He could barely keep still. "See that corner?" he said. "When he turns his feet in, he's going to drop off in coverage. If he's straight ahead, he's going to press-cover." On another play he laughed at a Miami blitz and said, "We're going to gash 'em."
Away from the lines, Petrino was never a warm and fuzzy presence. Players interacted largely with their position coaches. Fear was a powerful motivator. Petrino was known for violent outbursts of temper, and his criticism, while constructive, was painfully, brutally honest. And, as many players would tell you, usually on the money. He heard one local high school star was belittling the program on an official visit and kicked the player out, ending his recruitment on the spot.
After a couple of scrapes with the law in Petrino's first month, U of L football went three seasons without any stories about its players getting into serious off-the-field trouble. When U of L went to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl, Petrino wouldn't let the players out of the hotel on New Year's Eve. "Will you guys have a party?" we asked linebacker Brandon Johnson. "Yeah," he said. "We'll have 50 parties -- two deep."
Nobody was leaving the rooms. Players who came to U of L with rough reputations wound up staying in line. If players had problems, coaches became a constant presence. It was said Paul Petrino was Mario Urrutia's shadow for two years. Must have worked. Urrutia entered his final season at U of L on pace to be the all-time NCAA leader in yards per reception, only to struggle through his last season before declaring for the draft.
At the same time, there were rumblings after Petrino's departure that the coach had been too lax when it came to taking action on positive drug tests. The first positive test got you sent to drug counseling. The second got you a one-game suspension. The third got you a four-game suspension. Some later alleged that if there was a first, there usually was no testing done to risk a second or third. But attempts to get even aggregate records were not successful.
Under Kragthorpe, players had a three-strike policy. First offense garnered a one-game suspension, counseling and mandatory testing for one year. The second positive got a 4-game suspension and enrollment in a treatment program, and a third got you dismissed.
Players started being dismissed in high numbers, including some who had people around the school scratching their heads, because they'd been otherwise good citizens. Nobody could divulge the real reason for many of the dismissals, though one source close to the program said, "They chose pot over their football futures."
Others, like Rod Council, seemed to unravel without the constant presence of a threatening force. Council wound up bolting from campus and being arrested for armed robbery.
Some of the dismissals fostered resentment, and by the time Charlie Strong arrived as head coach, things had drifted to the point that he had to tell players to stay off their cell phones during halftimes of games.
What happened was a confluence of factors. Losing always heightens frustration, and magnifies every problem. And it's the beginning of the issues of post-Petrino coaching.
Petrino's offensive system can't be replicated, because so much of it is based upon the insight of his own design, and the instinct of his play-calling. You lose not only the architect, but the contractor.
Players pick up on that. And they also tend to exhale once a coach is gone who has kept them under his thumb in so many ways.
It doesn't mean the guys following Petrino haven't known what they were doing. They've demonstrated in their football careers that they do -- though at Louisville there were major coaching issues with Kragthorpe that in the end accounted for the decline, and you can't say there aren't major problems at Arkansas with current leadership too.
But Arkansas was in trouble on the field from the day Petrino was dismissed, even though John L. Smith is a good coach. The combination of tanking of confidence and the natural tendency of players to relax once an intimidating factor is gone leads to problems. So does the onset of losing. So does losing a gifted offensive play-caller.
One U of L official, at the end of the Cardinals' second game post-Petrino, a 58-42 win that the Cardinals had led just 38-35 at halftime over Middle Tennessee, got a text from Petrino in Atlanta as the game was ending. It read, "What the ---- was that?"
When it comes to life for programs in immediate post-Petrino times, that seems to be a common question.