As the list of college coaching vacancies continues to get shuffled, two massive emerging developments could create ripples that make their way towards Louisville, and possibly even further beyond.
Things were already getting interesting, with the firing of Tennessee athletic director John Currie complicating an already PT Barnum-esque coaching search by possibly sabotaging a deal with Washington State’s Mike Leach. Now comes word that Texas A&M has finally lured Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State, placing the Seminoles in the awkward position of actually having to go out and hire a head football coach for the first time in the three-plus decades that have passed since the hiring of Bobby Bowden. While a number of high-profile schools are still in the process of finding their guy, these two schools share one common link: both would seem to make sense as candidates to lure Bobby Petrino away from U of L.
To be clear, no reports have yet emerged suggesting that Petrino is considering leaving the school, nor has any school mentioned him as a coaching candidate. That said, there’s enough heat on this rumor that the Courier-Journal’s Louisville beat writer, Tim Sullivan, has explored just how and why it’s possible that Petrino could be coaching elsewhere next season. The speculation is far from completely baseless; for starters, there’s the matter of his contract buyout, which was slashed from $10 million to $4.5 million when the school chose to remove Tom Jurich as athletic director. Although that could have been a maneuver by Jurich to try and protect himself, the fact of the matter is that Jurich went out on a limb to rehire Petrino for a second stint as U of L football’s head man after a checkered track record with Arkansas, and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. That’s the sort of gesture that tends to engender strong feelings of loyalty, and if Petrino has taken the firing even the slightest bit personally, he might be wondering if the rumors of a dramatic culture shift suggested by Sullivan’s piece will make it worth sticking around.
Timing is another important factor. 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, easily the most gifted quarterback in school history and the key cog of Petrino’s revival of the Cardinal football brand, will be gone after the team’s bowl game; a future breaking off highlight-reel plays in the NFL awaits him. His freshman understudy, Jawon “Puma” Pass, has shown quite a lot of potential in limited action this season, but will find himself matched up against a conference full of way-more-experienced star talents like Miami’s Malik Rosier, Clemson’s Kelly Bryant, Virginia Tech’s Josh Jackson, and NC State’s Ryan Finley. Sadly for the Cards, the departures don’t end with Jackson; Louisville’s secondary–the only consistent unit on an otherwise disappointing defense this year–will lose safety Chucky Williams and corneback/kick returner Trumaine Washington to graduation, with corner Jaire Alexander likely to join them if his Draft stock is anywhere near the level it reached when he was named a preseason All-American. Combine all that with the graduation of experienced skill position talent like tight end Charles Standberry and running backs Reggie Bonnafon and Malik Williams, and the possibility exists that 2018 becomes a rebuilding year for the Cards.
There are four vacancies currently at Power Five conference schools, but in the event that Petrino were to leave, it’s safe to rule Nebraska and Arkansas out; the former is seemingly destined to pursue Husker alum and Central Florida head coach Scott Frost, and the latter would never rehire Petrino a second time given the circumstances of his previous departure. That leaves the Volunteers and Seminoles, both of which make sense as landing spots. For Tennessee, Petrino is a guy who’s won games in the SEC, compiling a 34-17 overall record at Arkansas that included two double-digit win seasons. His ability to recruit the state of Florida would rile up Gator fans–always a plus in the Volunteer community–and his record of developing talented quarterbacks might just be the thing that saves a team that struggled mightily to find any consistency at that position in 2017. Granted, his background might aggravate fans–they were certainly very vocal about Greg Schiano–but perhaps they’d be willing to take a chance on him with legendary coach Phillip Fulmer keeping an eye on him as the school’s new AD.
Those same reasons, minus the change of athletic director, would also make him a good choice for Florida State. Freshman QB James Blackman is physically gifted but has had his issues with the mental aspects of the college game, something Petrino could fix easily. Sure, he’s never beaten Clemson, but he’s been close before; FSU’s uncanny knack for restocking their defense in the face of annual NFL departures may be the thing he needs to finally beat Dabo Swinney’s Tigers. What really goes in the Seminoles’ favor, however, is the fact that their devotion to football above all other sports makes the prospect of chipping off $4.5 million for a buyout a petty concern, and the absence of the chaos surrounding Tennessee’s coaching search might make them the more appealing landing spot.
So where would Louisville turn if they found themselves with their own coaching vacancy? The most logical answer would be Purdue’s Jeff Brohm. The Louisville native, former Cards QB, and ex-Petrino assistant was speculated as a candidate when Petrino was rehired in 2014, and the belief that he’s spent his entire coaching career waiting for a shot at “his dream job” hasn’t stopped since. There’s been no official mention of Brohm wanting to leave for the Cards, but of course, that only makes sense; the job isn’t open. The question is, would he leave the Boilermakers if it were? He was texting recruits that he had no interest in going to Tennesee amidst reports that the Volunteers had tried–and failed–to lure him to Knoxville, but that’s no surprise when you consider that Leach is the only coach that’s seemingly expressed any real level of mutual interest since the Schiano deal collapsed. Coming home to a more dedicated football school with a gifted QB prospect might be too much for him to pass up, especially since his outstanding personal reputation would help further the desire of many associated with the university to “clean up” the athletic programs.
Again, it’s important to note that this is primarily just a thought exercise, since there’s no current indication of either Tennessee or Florida State having any preferred candidate in mind, much less Petrino. But in a year where so many schools don’t know who the coach is going to be until a contract is signed, sealed, and delivered, there’s enough momentum building that Louisville’s fans–and perhaps, by extension, Purdue’s–should be prepared for the notion that changes could be on the horizon.
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