The day Bobby Petrino turned his first Louisville players into film-study believers unfolded exactly the way he said it would.
It was Nov. 27, 2004, Louisville against cross-state rival Cincinnati.
Louisville got the ball first, at the 20. All week, Petrino told his offensive players that if the defensive end lined up on the opening play in the 9-technique, the Cards would score a touchdown.
Sure enough, the Cincinnati end was lined up exactly the way Petrino predicted. Brian Brohm checked to the right play.
Eric Shelton scored an 80-yard touchdown. Louisville won 70-7.
"I remember that play like it was yesterday," recalled Breno Giacomini, an offensive lineman on that squad. "It was unbelievable. He proved himself a lot to us before, but that day in my mind showed he knows exactly what he’s talking about. It all goes back to the film work he put in. That has made me a better player. It took me a little longer to realize but the film work that I put in has really helped my career."
Giacomini speaks from experience. As he shared anecdotes about Petrino over the phone, he was on his way to pick up the Super Bowl ring he won last season with Seattle.
Petrino has his share of critics, but it is hard to knock his ability to develop NFL-caliber players. He has coached 37 NFL draft picks; 29 have been offensive players. And one of the biggest keys to their collective success has been meticulous preparation that begins in the film room, something the current Louisville players have already begun to learn.
“If you can learn to break down film half as good as Coach Petrino can, it gives you an edge in the NFL,” said former Louisville center Eric Wood, going into his sixth season with Buffalo.
Ryan Mallett says the first thing Petrino taught him at Arkansas was defense, hugely beneficial now that he is with the New England Patriots.
“He acts like you don't know anything,” Mallett said. “What your coach might have told you in high school, he might want it done differently. Learning that way definitely helped me because in the NFL, you watch a lot of film throughout the day. So you know what to look for.
“The smaller details or finer details some guys might overlook, that helps you understand the game better, like who’s covering the running back if the running back is lined up at the receiver position. Little things like that, indicators before the ball is snapped so you know what will happen.”
Giacomini even notices the difference in NFL meeting rooms between those who have learned how to break down film under Petrino, and those who have not. He said Alvin Bailey, who played for Petrino at Arkansas and then with Giacomini in Seattle, got the playbook down just a little bit faster.
Beyond breaking down film, Petrino also expects perfection. When mistakes are made, screaming ensues. As Wood says, “You have your rough days playing for Coach Petrino because he’s really demanding, but ultimately that’s how you’re going to get the most out of 18 to 22 year olds.”
Harry Douglas, who ranks second on the Louisville career yards receiving list, credits that type of coaching style with helping him get drafted.
“The times he doesn’t holler at you and demand excellence, that’s when you need to be worried,” Douglas said. “He knows what each player he recruits is capable of and all he does is push you to be the best you can be. I always want a coach like that. Coaches like that are the best because they don’t care who you are, what star you are, how many catches you have, they’re going to push you. The hay is never going to be in the barn with them.”
Douglas was a Petrino believer from the start. A scrawny 130 pounds out of high school, Petrino pushed Douglas to transform himself, and he became an All-Big East receiver. When Petrino joined the Atlanta Falcons in 2007, he held Douglas up as an example of an undersized player who worked hard to become elite.
So when the Falcons ended up drafting Douglas in 2008, every receiver on the team knew exactly who was walking in the door.
“All the receivers said, ‘It’s time to see what he’s got,” said Douglas, coming off his best NFL season with 85 catches for 1,067 yards and two touchdowns. “Even now today, Roddy (White) and Julio (Jones) and people in Atlanta know I practice the same way I did in college. My practice habits have not changed.”
Petrino has not changed the way he runs practice or prepares his players with film study, though people who know him say he has changed away from the field. He had to, given the circumstances. He arrived at Louisville again with some extra baggage, but those who have played for Petrino are happy he is back.
"Initially when I heard he was coming back, I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder what people would think about rehiring him, a guy who left us and went through what he went through at Arkansas," Wood said. "But I believe in second chances. This is place he wanted to be, and I couldn’t be more excited. I got over those feelings in 10 seconds when I envisioned all he success U of L would have."