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Thinking big in the 'Ville (cont.)

Posted: Friday April 22, 2005 12:25PM; Updated: Friday April 22, 2005 3:52PM
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"Week in and week out, it's going to be much tougher," said Petrino, 20-5 in two seasons at the helm. "We were lucky last year that we could get a lead and play a lot of guys, so our starters didn't have to play a lot of snaps. Therefore we're going to have to make sure we're in great physical condition."

Petrino, who was hired just months before the national conference shakeup that cleared the way for Louisville's move, has been preparing for this day ever since.

"The last two years in recruiting and our offseason program, we've really tried to work on our size and speed along the offensive and defensive lines," he said. "I really thought that would be the difference between the two conferences. Here at Louisville, I think we'll always be able to get the speed and skill, but can you match up with the big, physical guys from the Northeast?"

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Off the field, all the pieces are already in place for such a jump. When the visionary Jurich arrived from Colorado State in 1997, Louisville's athletic department, outside of Denny Crum's basketball team, was among the worst in the country, including a football team that had just gone 1-10. Jurich immediately set out to "turn this into a football school," hiring head coach John L. Smith from Utah State, under whom the Cardinals began their current run of seven straight bowl trips (and whose original offensive coordinator was Petrino, who later went to Auburn and the Jacksonville Jaguars), and snapping up Petrino as his replacement nearly the same day Smith left for Michigan State.

He also began a relentless fundraising drive that has seen Louisville more than double its athletic spending to the point where, even while still in Conference USA, its $35 million budget in '03-04 exceeded that of all but one remaining Big East member (Connecticut). Drive along Floyd Road on the east side of campus and you'll see a row of one sparkling new athletic facility after another (the school has invested more than $100 million over the past decade), culminating with 42,000-seat Papa John's Cardinals Stadium, which opened in 1998, and its accompanying state-of-the-art football complex, which houses an 8,500-square-foot weight room.

"There were a lot of naysayers around here and we took a lot of criticism for investing in football. Everybody told us you can't have both [a major football and basketball program]," said Jurich, whose other big hire, Rick Pitino, just led the school to its first Final Four since 1986. "Those people are the same ones trying to jump on [the bandwagon] fast now."

The one thing that could have put a dent in Jurich's grand plan, however, almost took place last December when Petrino nearly left for LSU. His decision to interview with the school prior to the Cardinals' Liberty Bowl game -- just days after agreeing on a new contract, no less, and on the heels of his controversial, secret meeting with Auburn a year earlier -- infuriated Louisville fans and tried the patience of close friend Jurich.

Four months later, Jurich insists that awkward period is "all behind us. I'm a big Bobby Petrino fan. I want Bobby to be here as long as I'm here, and he knows that. If I'm selfish, so be it. He tells me he wants to be here, and I believe him."

With Petrino's guidance, Brohm will likely emerge as one of the nation's top quarterbacks over the next couple seasons. A 6-4, naturally gifted thrower with uncanny poise and maturity, he showed flashes of what's to come as a freshman, playing in nearly every game (an intentional decision by Petrino to ensure he wouldn't go into the Big East with an inexperienced quarterback), completing 67 percent of his passes for 819 yards. In his most memorable moment, he entered the Miami game in the fourth quarter after LeFors suffered a concussion and, on his second series, went 4-of-4 for 37 yards and ran for seven more on a scramble to lead his team to a go-ahead touchdown.

For a Louisville native and lifelong Cardinals fan who grew up watching every game, the fact his ascension to starting quarterback coincides with the program's rise in stature seems like something of a perfect storm.

"I've dreamed since I was a little kid about Louisville making it to the national title," said Brohm. "If I could be the quarterback that led them to that title, it would be a dream come true."


Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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