Louisville's surprising coaching staff stability anchors program this spring
Continuity is an unlikely theme for Bobby Petrino, but the coach with well-documented commitment issues has convinced his top two assistants that Louisville is a place to stay. Perhaps just as surprising, two of the team’s most disappointing losses from 2014 helped solidify the coordinators’ decisions.
Clemson held on to beat Louisville 23-17 on Oct. 11, stuffing the Cardinals on fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line with 21 seconds to play. Three weeks later Louisville shot out to a 21-0 first-half lead against unbeaten Florida State. But the Cards’ defense deflated in the final 30 minutes of a 42-31 loss.
It’s easy to see why fans might want to forget those defeats. Yet defensive coordinator Todd Grantham came away from both assured of his team’s potential. “At the end of the day, we came up short,” he said. “But to be honest with you, after those two games I was more convinced than ever that we can win the ACC.”
Tight tussles with ACC power programs kept Grantham intrigued by what could come next at Louisville. That’s a big reason he spurned an offer to join the NFL’s Oakland Raiders last month. Grantham’s choice came weeks after offensive coordinator Garrick McGee also reaffirmed his commitment to the program. McGee passed up a number of college and NFL opportunities, including an interview for the offensive coordinator position at his alma mater, Oklahoma.
As a result, Louisville heads into spring practice with staff stability, something that is relatively unusual for this program. Former coach Charlie Strong was a hot name well before he left for Texas in January 2014. Petrino was with the Cardinals from '03-06 before infamously leaving for the Atlanta Falcons six months after signing a 10-year contract to stay at Louisville. Now, Petrino is back and heading into his second season amid familiarity on the sidelines.
On National Signing Day Petrino waxed poetic about his most important recruiting jobs. They had nothing to do with his roster.
“The two biggest signees we had on Signing Day was the ability to keep both of our coordinators,” Petrino said. “They both had opportunities to leave, but because of the support of (athletic director) Tom Jurich, we were able to keep both guys here, which was great for our program.
“It was vital for the continuity in our program to keep both of our leaders on each side of the ball. It’s great for the program because we don’t have to re-teach our scheme to the returning players and allows us to move forward this spring.”
Those schemes helped Louisville avoid a major drop-off as it entered the ACC in 2014. The Cardinals didn’t look like newcomers; they finished 9-4 and ranked in the league's top five in both scoring offense (31.2 points per game) and scoring defense (21.8). The offense remained competitive while rotating through three quarterbacks: Will Gardner, Reggie Bonnafon and Kyle Bolin. NFL-bound receiver DeVante Parker also missed the first seven games with a foot injury.
But a new season means a new challenge, and Louisville’s offense is set to return just five starters. Gone is Parker, fellow receiver Eli Rogers and tailback Michael Dyer, as well as three seniors on the offensive line. The Cardinals’ attack gets a boost from transfers like Jamari Staples (UAB) and Ja'Quay Williams (Texas A&M), two receivers who will be eligible and could emerge as major weapons.
But McGee isn’t blind to the real reason people ask why he’s staying at Louisville. Why stick with Petrino, a coach whose history suggests he’d leave the Cardinals at the hint of a better job? Because, McGee says, this is a different Petrino.
“I’ve had a lot of people say to me—people that I respect and people that have done well in this business—that I probably should’ve gone somewhere else,” McGee said. “But they don’t really know our day-to-day operation. They don’t know the feeling we have when we take the field. You’re not really in position to give advice if you don’t know what’s going on on a daily basis.”
Of course, there’s the offense. During Petrino’s first stint at Louisville, the program averaged at least 34 points per game in each of his four seasons. It reeled off 49.8 points per game during the 2005 campaign. This year, when McGee was weighing other offers, he recalled the feeling he got last offseason when Petrino lured him to the Cardinals’ staff from UAB. “That’s a pretty cool call to get from one of the top offensive coaches in college football,” McGee said. “The trust he has in me to run his offense, with him being one of the top [offensive] guys, that goes a long way.”
While McGee has the added tie of a history with Petrino—he served on Petrino’s staff at Arkansas from 2008-11—Grantham’s decision to spurn the Raiders raised a few more eyebrows. The coach spent a large chunk of his career in the NFL, where he coached for 11 seasons with the Colts, Texans, Browns and Cowboys before returning to the college game with Georgia in ‘10.
Reports also pointed to previous tension between Grantham and Petrino. Last August SI.com’s Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans reported “significant friction” between the two, and a source said Petrino only kept Grantham due to his guaranteed five-year, $5 million contract.
Despite all that, Grantham turned down chance to join Jack Del Rio’s staff as the Raiders defensive coordinator, an opportunity he admits “excited and interested” him. Grantham credited Jurich—“the best AD I’ve worked for”—and the Louisville community for convincing him to lay roots in the ACC.
He also couldn’t ignore Louisville’s future with Petrino. Burned bridges or not, Petrino has won everywhere he has been. “He’s going to have a winning program,” Grantham said. “That whole thing excited me to the fact that I felt like I could be a part of that puzzle and be a part of taking Louisville to the next level.”
Much like McGee with the offense, Grantham will have his work cut out for him on defense this spring. The Cardinals lose seven starters on that side of the ball, including linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin and safety Gerod Holliman. Few players will be as tough to replace as Holliman, who won the Thorpe Award after tying an NCAA record with 14 interceptions in 2014.
Two players who Grantham coached at Georgia, corner Shaq Wiggins and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, are eligible transfers and should add immediate talent to a depleted secondary. The Cards' defense won’t wait long before it faces a true test: The program opens the 2015 season against Auburn in Atlanta.
Questions abound for Louisville on both sides of the ball, but at least it won’t have to search for answers with new coaches. Grantham and McGee think that stability can lead to future success.
“At the end of the day, the fact that Garrick and myself both decided to stay, I think that speaks volumes for our belief in what we can accomplish here and the direction the program is heading right now,” Grantham said. “I really do believe we can continue to build on what we got started over this past year.”