CRAWFORD | Lamar Jackson Heisman Snapshot: The Coach
Lamar Jackson was a great player when he arrived at Louisville. Bobby Petrino made him a great quarterback. A look at Jackson's Heisman from the coach's perspective.
NEW YORK (WDRB) — I’m sitting in a nearly empty press room now, almost 1 a.m. I really haven’t gotten to write anything since the end of the Heisman Trophy column I posted right after Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson was announced as the winner, most of which was written before the ceremony.
There was TV to do, scrambling to find a spot for a live shot, then multiple TV hits to tape, all the while fending off the folks in Times Square who wanted to be a part of things. Hey to the Filipino couple who wanted to pose with us and hold our microphones, hope those photos turned out all right! Oh, and the Hot Chocolate Santas, you tried to make it into one of the takes, but we couldn't have you showing us up!
All of that, of course, takes away from what we’re here to talk about. And sometimes I feel like I get so far removed from an event in situations like this that the immediate writer’s instinct to get it all down escapes me.
I don’t like press rooms. They are the worst places to write. I took off, up to the eighth floor, to the bar at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, which closed at midnight. Hey Marquis — Louisville is not impressed. But it was up there that I bumped into Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, wandering by himself in a hallway out of a reception they’d had up there.
I told him congratulations, that I thought he had played a huge role in this happening for Jackson, with his polishing him as a passer and as a student of the game. Petrino said that he appreciated it, and remarked at what an amazing night it was, and seemed, for a second time tonight, a bit emotional. Earlier, he’d teared up just a bit when talking about coaching a Heisman winner, and that he hadn’t even said the words yet.
So I guess I’ll start right here with the coach. There are quite a few things I want to write about Jackson, and will write about in separate columns — the player, the speech, the school, the mother and the future — but let’s start with the coach, since he's the one who wandered out in front of me at midnight.
And I want to start with a picture in Petrino’s office. It’s Petrino with athletic director Tom Jurich, and the coach is pointing into the distance. Petrino described the picture, and re-enacted the way he was pointing.
“We’re talking about Lamar Jackson,” Petrino said. “And I said this kid is going to be really special. He can see things, he can flick his wrist and get the ball out, and it’s just a matter of his learning the offense. And from that point on, what we really did that (freshman) season was put in certain little packages for him, feeling like he couldn’t learn the entire offense that quick. But we could give him something where he could go out on the field and be successful. And even then, he surpassed everything that I thought he could do.”
Jurich said during that conversation, Petrino told him, “We’ve got a special one here. I’ve just got to teach him.”
It hasn’t really been said, but should be said. Jackson probably wouldn’t have been standing there, kissing a Heisman trophy with his name engraved on it after his sophomore season, if he hadn’t come to play for Bobby Petrino.
He’s a great player. I don’t mean to say he isn’t. And he could have won the Heisman anywhere. But nobody else, really, was willing to give him a chance to take the keys right away. And few others are better prepared to educate a guy into how to become the kind of serious quarterback that Jackson wants to be.
You have a guy who can run the ball better than any quarterback in the country, well enough to be a top ten rusher in the nation this past season. The number of coaches who would then be determined to turn him into a great passer is not too high. Petrino is one of them.
Petrino knew what he had when Jackson got onto campus. Jurich said that picture, with Petrino telling him how good Jackson was going to be, was taken four days into practice.
“The first thing I want to do is applaud Bobby, because I know how much time and effort he put into Lamar,” Jurich said. “If you ever had a son growing up who wants to be a quarterback, you want him playing for this guy. Because you’ve got to remember, every, single school that recruited Lamar didn’t recruit him as a quarterback. Bobby did, that’s why we got him. Bobby’s the only guy, Lamar told me that himself, who said you’re going to be a quarterback.”
Jackson echoed that.
“I’m not here without Coach P,” he said. “He’s a genius, now. He’ll be getting on me on the sidelines and talking an a play is going on in practice. Then he’ll turn around and tell them, ‘No, you did that wrong, do it again.’ And I’m like, ‘How did you even see that?’”
Petrino, like most of the Louisville contingent in New York, came into the weekend calm and confident. But as time passed, he was a bundle of nerves sitting there in the PlayStation Theater. Many of them, particularly the U of L people, may have wanted this more for Jackson than he did for himself.
“It was a long hour, there’s no question about that,” Petrino said. “You come into it thinking, ‘There’s no way he can not win it.’ But then you see all the other great players and you realize what his dedication and hard work and what he put into the season.”
When we talk about Heisman Moments, people will mention this play or that during the season. His leaping touchdown at Syracuse. His threading the needle against N.C. State. The Florida State route, the Clemson comeback near-miss. It’s a long list.
But Petrino goes somewhere else. He told Jackson that if he wanted to be a serious quarterback, he’d have to come in to the Schnellenberger Complex early every morning. He’d have to spend uncomfortable hours with his mistakes. He made Jackson write them lout longhand, so he would remember them.
He and his son Nick Petrino, a first-time quarterbacks coach, worked with Jackson to learn defenses. Petrino wanted him to be able to look at a defense on video, then visualize in his head what it would look like on the field. If a safety came down in run support, he wanted Jackson to be able to visualize what that would look like across the line of scrimmage, how the defense then would react to various plays.
Over time, Jackson developed that ability. Of Jackson’s work over the summer, when no one was watching, Petrino said: “It’s definitely why he won the Heisman. Because of his commitment and desire to become a serious quarterback. His ability to picture plays has gotten better But one of the things that’s really neat for me is how he became a leader during the season. I remember a couple of times in practice he would look at me and say, ‘He was short on that route.” And I would say, yes, he was, and I’d head toward the receiver to correct him and he’d say, ‘That’s all right coach, I got it.’ And he just continued to become a better leader, and in a positive manner.”
That’s telling. You can develop a passer. Developing a person is harder. They have to do the heavy lifting on that themselves.
Petrino also changed a lot of his own proven offensive playbook to accommodate a player of Jackson’s talents. He let Lamar be Lamar sometimes, which meant letting go of some of the offense, in hopes of getting more back.
Now, Petrino always has adapted to the talent on his offense. His is not a system set to operate one way only. It is a system designed to make sure the best players have the ball. But he also understood that to be great, Jackson had to be able to throw the ball.
“I hope Bobby gets credit for that,” Jurich said. “Instead of saying look, Lamar, you’re going to come in and do it this way and run my plays, he looked at all of Lamar’s strengths and all his talent and re-created an offense for him. To me, that’s a hell of a job that Bobby Petrino did. He really reinvented himself and I’m so proud of that.”
“We knew how well he could run the football, and he did a tremendous job of running it,” Petrino said. “But because he could throw the ball, and people had to defend the pass, it opened up his ability to run. The improvement he’s made since he came to our program is because of his dedication and hard work and his drive.”
Somebody asked Petrino how it felt to be the coach of a Heisman Trophy winner.
Petrino answered, “I haven’t said the words yet. I think I want to call my dad and say it to him.”
Then he looked down and teared up a bit. Jurich reached out an arm and slapped him on the back and pulled him a little closer in.
“I’m so proud of Lamar,” Petrino said. “He’s a young man who worked extremely hard. He played as hard as he possibly could, did a tremendous job of being a leader for our football team, and I feel like he certainly deserved it. . . . “The thing that’s been so fun for me to coach Lamar is he makes it fun every day. He comes to the meeting room with a smile on his face. I always try to pop in and joke with him a little bit. But they’re working extremely hard in there. He comes out to the practice field with tremendous energy, sprints full-speed down the field. ... Just his ability to have that kind of attitude on a daily basis has a made everybody around him better.”
Not only is Petrino the coach of a Heisman Trophy winner, he gets to keep on being the coach of one. When asked after the awards ceremony what Jackson can do to get better, Petrino smiled, then answered: “Well I’m going to figure something out for him.”
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