Whenever Bobby Petrino departs a college football program, the remnants are generally described to me by the outside coaching community as “scorched earth.” But then Louisville’s 2019 team won an inexplicable eight games, with a roster one rival assistant told me was “hands-down the shittiest in the Power 5” after ‘18.
So now I feel the need to reevaluate. Or figure out how good Scott Satterfield is.
“Scorched earth” is a military term wherein one side destroys every surrounding resource to slow an advancing enemy. Anything the losing side might surrender as an asset is burned to prevent its acquisition by the invading force. But this is a strategy. It involves foresight and tact, neither of which Petrino can be accused of at his career stops, at least from the outside. If anything, I’d classify the “Petrino Effect” on a program’s culture and roster as a pure corrosive agent.
When Petrino left Big East Louisville for the Atlanta Falcons in 2006, the Cardinals were 12-1 Orange Bowl winners. Steve Kragthrope would follow with only 15 wins over the next three years and the Cards wouldn’t win double digit games in a season until 2012, Charlie Strong’s third season.
In November of 2007, Petrino fled the NFL for Arkansas. There he won a remarkable 29 games before he crashed a hog because he was thinking with his hog, ultimately crushing the Hogs. In the eight years since Petrino, the program has won only 37 games (4.6 wins a season).
The asterisk in this study is 2013 Western Kentucky. Petrino agreed to coach the Hilltoppers as his post-scandal comeback act. Privately, both parties knew the arrangement would only last a year. After Petrino left WKU, offensive coordinator and unofficial coach-in-waiting Jeff Brohm set about winning 30 games and two conference titles in three years.
Maybe one year of Petrino doesn’t corrode your program. Maybe Jeff Brohm’s miraculous healing abilities really are metahuman. Or maybe he didn’t have time to fuck with the players too much.
“Those weren’t his guys. That’s the simplest explanation. Bobby saw a pretty good roster when Willie [Taggart] went to USF,” a former WKU assistant told me. “He had an offer from Arkansas State but thought he could win more at Western, or at least enough to get right back out. So he comes in, he and Jeff run that offense, and that entire time everyone knows he’s gone and Jeff’s gonna be the guy. So that’s why it didn’t happen. He was barely there.”
Most importantly, the players at WKU knew that. According to other coaches, that’s paramount because Petrino’s sole estimation of them doesn’t become the end-all.
“That’s why it falls apart when he leaves or gets fired,” the former assistant told me. “He brings in players who thrive in a bad culture. Verbal abuse. Intimidation. Not giving a shit about interacting outside the football building. You used to call those players ‘mercenaries.’ He used to be - and I say used to be because I don’t think he can impress kids [in recruiting] like he did back then - he used to be able to pitch them on offense, on getting to the league, if they did what he said and they put up with his shit.”
There’s no real way to measure this kind of idea. Are athletes who wanted to play for Petrino bad people? No. Does it stand to reason they shared a trait of being able to endure a toxic personality like Petrino’s? Maybe.
“So when he goes, the locker room is lost. You’re gonna come in and preach family or team. That’s not gonna work. He’s got it all set up on fear and results. So everyone goes into business for themselves.”
“Watch the Commonwealth Cup in ‘18, that’s a team who absolutely quit.”
What’s notable about that game - Petrino’s last at Louisville - is not that the 2-9 Cardinals were all but defeated entering the day against a peaking Kentucky program. It’s that the players knew Petrino had no authority. This wasn’t a coach heading out the door to a bigger gig. This was a defeated man without the success so necessary to justify his leadership.
“You cannot play united in spite of a coach. Eventually players will start to freelance because there’s no respect for the concept of a selfless team or leadership. ‘Fuck That Asshole’ doesn’t win you much.”
It stands to reason Scott Satterfield must be a wizard, or at minimum a licensed behavioral therapist.
Consider: 2019 was not an easy schedule to start with (two playoff teams including the national champion, 10-win Kentucky, surging Virginia, etc). And like any new job, Satterfield’s staff had to factor in roster attrition, relationship building and system installations, all of which should’ve equaled slow-to-no visible progress come December of ‘19.
And yet Louisville didn’t just win enough games to look like a reasonable miracle, they won and lost exactly the right games to illustrate 1) there was more talent on the roster under Petrino than 2-10 in 2018 and 2) Petrino was miles from creating a program that could compete at the top of the conference.
The losses all make sense for a Year Zero program. If I told you to pick out five defeats for the Cardinals heading into 2019, you’d probably pick these five first. All of them - Notre Dame, Florida State, Clemson, Miami and Kentucky - were by double digits (four were 18-point margins or higher, essentially blowouts). Three were to successful, consistent programs (Notre Dame, Clemson, Kentucky) and two were to Florida schools who, despite their issues last season, arguably had more raw talent.
It’s even possible to explain away all eight of the Cards’ wins. Here’s how an opposing assistant coach did exactly that for me (when lightly prompted):
- Two early wins over directional in-state programs Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky. “The only success here is avoiding a spoiler loss.” (Although nine-game winner WKU was at a neutral site in Nashville)
- Four shootout wins vs. mediocre NC State, Syracuse, Boston College and a decent Wake Forest. The average score of these games was 48-38 Louisville. “None of these teams had good defenses and all of them could score easily on UL. The margins against BC (41-39) and Wake (62-59) are both a drive’s difference.”
- A 28-21 comeback win over a very good Virginia team in late October, but: “It was in the rain, at home, Virginia’s still learning how to win every game they’re supposed to, and [UVA] turned the ball over on two [potential] touchdown drives. [Virginia quarterback Bryce] Perkins is a little shook in that game.”
- A 38-28 Music City Bowl win over Mississippi State. “Their linebacker broke their quarterback’s face in practice. I mean, come on. that staff was as good as fired. Not the same Mississippi State that put three first rounders in the Draft.”
We Have a Lot of Questions That Need 2020 Answers
At this point, one could surmise:
- Scott Satterfield and his staff are very good at their jobs.
- Maybe Petrino’s reputation for program corrosion isn’t entirely accurate.
I’d venture to guess that No. 1 is true in some capacity. Just look at the consistency, success and reputation Satterfield built at Appalachian State. However, to what magnitude this is true will determine No. 2. We need to ask ourselves what kind of 2020 is necessary to qualify Louisville’s 2019 season as the start of something positive with long-term staying power.
Assuming 2020 is as normal a season as possible, if the Cardinals only win five games this year, what does that mean? That Petrino’s roster had gaps in the underclassmen and turnover cut depth? That 2019 was a fluke and those BC and Wake and NC State wins were more about the luck of the last team on offense?
There’s also the bigger question: What is Louisville in the ACC? The expectation for this program in the Power 5 is still very much TBD. Is this similar to a situation like Texas A&M in the SEC? Do we just not know where to slot them in the conference hierarchy?
It’s totally OK not to know these answers. We won’t for a while - in the case of recruiting and player development and branding Louisville as developer of raw talent into compensated draft picks, we won’t for years.
Whether or not Bobby Petrino’s culture isn’t as horrible to a program as we in the industry think OR if Scott Satterfield is some kind of locker room culture messiah may not be a binary concept. These may or may not be mutually exclusive ideas in an incomplete picture.