Bobby Petrino entered Papa John's Cardinal Stadium to a huge ovation.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The signature snapshot was not a bucket of Gatorade poured over Bobby Petrino's white baseball cap and relaxed smile. That's not the way the University of Louisville celebrated Petrino's return, a thunderous return that ended with a 31-13 victory over Miami at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium Monday night.
“It's just one game,” Louisville tight end Gerald Christian said. “Maybe later in the season.”
This time there were other snapshots for the big screen: The largest home crowd in program history – 55,428 – showing up early and showing up enthusiastically, chanting Petrino's name as he led his team through the parking lot into the stadium several hours before the game, as if he'd beaten Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl and never left town.
John Swofford, commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, watched that technicolor moment with U of L athletic director Tom Jurich.
“Holy cow,” Swofford said. “They love that guy.”
Swofford had probably heard, without actually understanding why Petrino is loved here and jeered elsewhere. Now he does. They remember the 41 wins in 50 games when Petrino was here the first time from 2003-2006. They remember playing Kentucky four times and winning four times. They remember traveling to Miami and winning the Orange Bowl.
They remember points, points and more points – and they don't worry about the way Petrino left town less than a week after that game or what happened in his life over the next seven years.
The chant – “BOB-bee, BOB-bee, BOB-bee” – echoed through the stadium again with 1:43 to play after Christian caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Will Gardner to ice the victory, making Petrino a perfect 10 (and 0) in season-opening games.
“I heard it,” Petrino said, his eyes dancing at the memory. The first thing Petrino mentioned at his post-game press conference was the pre-game applause.
Then there was one more moment that Jurich hopes a photographer captured – Petrino embracing his wife, Becky, on the field, surrounded by the four Petrino children and two grandchildren. Petrino's mother and father, who had flown in from Montana earlier in the week, were in the stands celebrating, too. Less than 2 1/2 years ago, in Arkansas, this moment seemed beyond impossible. Now here it was, real.
“That was the greatest play of the day,” Jurich said. “It was special to me.
“I was always very confident (this hire would work out). I'm not saying that hindsight is 20-20 or, ‘Boy I showed you,' because he has a lot to overcome.' And he knows that. But this was a great moment.”
Yes, it was. Louisville played without its best offensive player (receiver DeVante Parker) and its second-best running back (Michael Dyer). The Cards lost two fumbles. They had a defensive touchdown taken away by a premature whistle. They were far from flawless. They had a platoon of skeptics, waiting for Petrino to flop.
But Louisville won – with might and muscle more than magic. They were tougher on defense, limiting the Hurricanes to a dozen first downs and 244 yards, only 114 in the second half.
They were more determined running the football. Petrino is applauded for his ability to work with quarterbacks. But he knows the right way to close out a football game. Run the football. He gave the ball 33 times to senior Dominique Brown, who responded with 143 yards.
The Cards didn't even start the game the way that a Petrino team is supposed to start the game – incompletion, a run for zero yards, incompletion on the first three snaps.
If Louisville starts the game like that under the old Bobby Petrino, the coach howls at the moon or chomps on his headset. Didn't happen.
“First drive totally fell apart,” Jurich said. “His whole thing is boom, boom, boom, we're going to score. His demeanor was incredible. He brought (quarterback Will Gardner) over and said we're fine, everything's great. Then we looked like Bobby ball again.”
Second drive: Louisville ran 12 plays. Gardner threw five passes and completed five passes for 50 yards. Brown carried eight times for the other 43 yards as the Cards marched 93 yards for the first touchdown of the Petrino Era II.
“I would say this was his greatest win as a coach just because how much pressure was on his shoulders,” Jurich said.
Hyperbole? Maybe a bit. It was opening night. But you know the list of things Petrino did to drive his career deep into the rough. It's a long list, and it will always be part of the Petrino story. It's the reason Louisville was on a very short list of high-major programs willing to invest in Bobby Petrino.
It's also the reason he was featured in Sports Illustrated several weeks ago and one of the reasons that ESPN was ecstatic to make this the only football game on national television Monday night.
Plus, he's playing Miami, a program that his popular predecessor, Charlie Strong, beat by 27 points about eight months ago. Oh, yeah. It was also Louisville's first game as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. It was a signature moment for Petrino. America was watching -- the folks who think he's still a marvelous coach as well as the folks who don't understand why Jurich brought him back.
“I probably was more nervous for this game than any game I've ever coached,” Petrino said. “I haven't slept a lot lately. But it was so exciting once I got to the stadium. And then to watch our players go out there and play the way they did.”
It was just one game, the opening line in the Bobby Petrino re-write. But it was everything that Tom Jurich hoped for when he brought Petrino back to town last January.