This column is the first in a series looking at possible choices for the University of Louisville football coaching position.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville football program stands in a precarious position. It is coming off the most successful two-year run in history. It is moving into the Atlantic Coast Conference and, as athletic director Tom Jurich said on Sunday, "we don't want to just be happy to be in, we want to compete."
Already in the aftermath of Charlie Strong's departure to become head coach at Texas, several high-level recruits have rescinded their commitments to U of L, and two mid-year transfers have decided to look elsewhere. DeVante Parker, the team's top wideout and a Louisville native, may be set to reconsider his decision to stay.
Jurich is playing this coaching search more close to the vest than he has his past three. In those, there were few questions. Bobby Petrino was understood as the first and only choice after John L. Smith left. Jurich had been eyeing Steve Kragthorpe for several years while Petrino flirted with other jobs. Before Kragthorpe was gone, Jurich figured to target Charlie Strong, who was his only choice.
The job now is bigger than it ever has been, but also carries more pressure. A step back now would be costly. Momentum will be difficult to maintain with a tougher schedule. The Louisville athletic director wouldn't outline criteria during a discussion with media members on Sunday, but close to the top of the list would have to be preserving the recruiting presence Strong re-established in Florida.
For that reason, coaches with little experience recruiting the region might be seen as underdogs.
Then there's the question of personnel on campus. Strong built an offense and defense to do certain things. To go too far away from that template might be to take a step back.
Jurich isn't talking about his criteria, but my feeling on the program is that unlike at other times when the goal was establishing and building, with this hire, the word "safe" might be the operative term. What choices have the most up-side, while also having the ability to build on what already is in place with as little disruption to the current momentum as possible?
The answer to those questions might actually lie in some options that are closest to home. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford told reporters in Texas Sunday that he'd like to have the opportunity to interview for the head coaching job. He should have that chance. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has head coaching experience, the respect of his players, and deserves to be considered on his own merit, and not in connection with what Strong dictated as terms for the offense he directed.
And then there's the guy whose name was spray-painted on a banner hanging from the parking garage just down the street from Jurich's office: Bobby Petrino. In a twist as strange as anything you'll find in fiction, Petrino might actually be the safest choice of all.
A quick look at all three of those options:
BEDFORD. The 55-year-old native of Beaumont, Texas, directed U of L to the nation's No. 2-ranked defense in yards allowed last season. A right-hand man and confidant of Strong's at Louisville, he's hardly a coach of limited experience. In some ways, his toils in college footballs shadows are every bit as deep and long as Strong's were.
He was a defensive backs coach for six seasons with the Chicago Bears. He coached defensive backs for four years at Michigan. In 1997, he coached a guy named Charles Woodson, who became the only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy.
After finishing with the Bears, he went to work for Urban Meyer at Florida, where coached some of the best secondaries in the nation.
But he left that to come with Strong to Louisville, because he believed in Strong, and he believed in his vision for Louisville.
In fact, more than any coach on U of L's staff, Bedford articulated that vision. He told fans to "get on the train," and it became a billboard slogan.
Bedford is a serious football coach. He's more than qualified to be a head coach in college football, and has a public persona that Strong may have lacked.
Whether he possesses the organizational traits that Strong had is something Jurich would need to determine through the interview process. He'd also have to ask what kind of offense Bedford could manage, and what kind of staff he could build. But if Bedford wants an interview, chances are he's going to get it.
And he deserves it, both from his performance in Louisville, and his long experience.
Under Bedford, the train might change conductors, but it would have a legitimate chance of rolling on.
WATSON. He took some shots from the fan base this season because many thought the offense was too conservative. But U of L fans who didn't like the offense need to ask themselves something. How many offensive coordinators have you seen who don't want to hit the gas all the time? How many have you seen who don't want to go for the jugular, light up scoreboards and set scoring records?
Strong had a philosophy. Win With Defense was rule No. 1. He said, before U of L's game against Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl, he was fine winning games 9-6.
Watson is not. That's not his deal. But he built an offense based on time of possession and helping to set up a defense that ranked No. 2 nationally. It might seem like only using your Ferrari to drive to the grocery, but that wasn't his call.
Watson has been coaching for 31 years. Three of those years were spent as a head coach. He went 11-22 at Southern Illinois. It's tough to get a read on that tenure, because Southern Illinois had gone only 15-29 in the four years prior to his arrival. The other issue -- it was nearly 20 years ago when he took over as head coach there.
Since then he's been at Northwestern, Colorado, Nebraska and finally Louisville. He was let go by Bo Pelini at Nebraska. In two of the three years since his departure, Nebraska has ranked in the 60s nationally in total offense. He also served as a recruiting coordinator at Nebraska, so he not only has the experience of heading up recruiting efforts in a BCS conference, but has the experience of working within Strong's system.
Teddy Bridgewater, after the Russell Athletic Bowl, called Watson one of the five most important people in his life. Bridgewater's heir apparent, Will Gardner, said he would love to see Watson stay, for the continuity it would bring.
Watson is a mature, emotional coach. His lone lapse at Louisville was in firing back at critics, saying people carping about his calls were probably "tiny, little people." Fans took offense to that.
Maybe that's too much for him to overcome. But Watson knows offense. And I learned under Kragthorpe, it's easy to blame coordinators when offenses fail, but the head coach on the sidelines has the final say. The game called in the booth isn't always the one that is executed on the field.
The last words Tom Jurich said to me on the field in the Citrus Bowl after the Russell Athletic Bowl win were, "He's one of the best offensive coaches I've ever seen. I can't believe how much anonymous complaining I've gotten over that guy. Who do you think put this game plan together? He's quality."
Could he continue U of L's momentum? There are questions to be answered, but he certainly deserves a serious look from Jurich, if he wants it.
PETRINO. In a poll of fans at WDRB.com, Bobby Petrino was a runaway winner. He holds 44 percent of the support of thousands of fans who have responded. No other coach has more than 14 percent. He's also getting the support of a slew of his former U of L players, including Brian Brohm and Elvis Dumervil.
His relationship with Tom Jurich is fine, the athletic director said when asked about him on Sunday. In fact, when asked specifically about Petrino, Jurich responded, "Everybody is in play."
As of late Sunday, Western Kentucky athletic officials said Jurich had not reached out to them to speak with Petrino.
When I interviewed Petrino over the summer, he went out of his way to express gratitude for Jurich's role in helping him during his absence from the game. He said he used Jurich as a resource, and credited him with helping him get back into the game.
Petrino carries considerable baggage. But he has been helped by his brief time at Western Kentucky, and now at the very least all that has been placed into the back seat.
What would the key obstacles to a Petrino return? I would think Jurich would need to find out whether Petrino truly has changed. He'll talk to people around him in Bowling Green. He'll ask others on campus. He'll have an extended discussion with Petrino. The concern wouldn't so much be that he would leave, but how he treats others once he's here. Moreover, during the Kragthorpe era, there were problems that were laid at Petrino's feet. One problem that Jurich expressed privately was that Petrino built great teams, but he didn't necessarily focus on building a great program. Petrino would need to address that shortcoming to Jurich's satisfaction.
But Petrino has a demonstrated ability to recruit Florida. He's still one of the better offensive minds in the game. He's a great molder of quarterbacks.
If he can convince Jurich that he's also grown from all he's experienced, he represents perhaps everything that Jurich is looking for.
I'd say Petrino remains a longshot.
But he does have a shot.
There are, of course, other coaches on the radar who have experience, who have proven track records in recruiting, and who are head coaches or have been recently. Greg Schiano is one. So is Rich Rodriguez. Both may well get a close look from Jurich.
But Jurich could do worse than look at this trio close to home. There's a great deal of experience and potential there.
NEXT UP: Tom Jurich has been successful plucking top coordinators and grooming them into successful head coaches. Which candidates could be the next coach Tom Jurich turns into a star?