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"YOU HAVE TO be all in. We're all in times 10."
It's a chilly October Saturday. In his suite at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich is talking about the school's commitment to its football team, which will rise as high as third in the country before losing to Houston in November. He keeps talking while Lamar Jackson, the sophomore quarterback who won this year's Heisman Trophy, squirts through an opening and gallops over half the field before someone brings him down. It's nothing Jurich hasn't seen before.
Louisville's opponent is no patsy. The previous week, NC State had nearly upset Clemson. The week before, it beat Notre Dame. Still, the Wolfpack have as much chance of halting Bobby Petrino's offense as grounding the UPS planes that seem to leave nearby Louisville International every two minutes. At halftime, Louisville leads 44-0.
When Jurich arrived at Louisville in 1997, football was an embarrassment. The Cardinals were in the midst of a 1-10 season. The last AD had imported Howard Schnellenberger to work the magic he'd worked at Miami, but after more than 100 games and a losing record, Schnellenberger fled for Oklahoma. There'd been talk at one point of dropping football, says Billy Reed, the former Courier-Journal columnist and unofficial U of L historian.
Instead, Jurich went all in. He scheduled games for Tuesdays and Wednesdays to get on television. He courted wealthy donors, with or without school ties. He hired Petrino, who'd concocted a powerhouse offense at Auburn. And then, after Petrino left for a succession of jobs -- one of which ended with his being fired following an illicit relationship with an employee -- Jurich hired him again.
That's one way to succeed at college football, where field houses can feel like luxury hotels and the offensive coordinator often earns more than the governor. The other? Get real. Know who you are. Of the 128 universities in the NCAA's Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, perhaps a hundred have no shot at No. 1. Even in the Power 5 conferences, says Jim Livengood, the former AD at UNLV, Arizona and Washington State, "there are teams that will eventually struggle to keep up."
If those schools can't devote the necessary resources to FBS football, Livengood insists, they need to wean themselves from it before it bankrupts them. Football has brought dozens of FBS athletic departments to the precipice of fiscal mismanagement as they try to compete with the 16 percent of athletic departments that actually turn a profit, even as the cost of facilities, coaches and travel grows exponentially.
Among the 128, one has waved the white flag. After being booted from the Sun Belt Conference, the University of Idaho announced this past spring that it was taking the unprecedented step of leaving the FBS. In 2018, it will rejoin the Big Sky, which plays in the Football Championship Subdivision, what used to be known as Division I-AA. Its coach? Bobby Petrino's brother.
Idaho never fit in the Sun Belt. Trips to the Deep South for Troy and South Alabama bumped rivals Montana and Idaho State off the schedule. But if that was a hard road, staying solvent without bowl ties and TV revenue would be even harder. Idaho has gone 1-11 or 2-10 five times in the past decade. Its fan base is clustered five hours south in Boise. Its corporate donors are nearly nonexistent. Its athletic budget is $15 million, about one-sixth of Louisville's $94 million. For head football coach Paul Petrino to have a chance of success, AD Rob Spear notes, the school needs to invest $5 million in his program.
"We can't pay that," he says. "And maybe we shouldn't."
LET'S COUNT THE journalists in attendance for Paul Petrino's Tuesday afternoon news conference. There's one. And another, the kid in front. Is that a third, in the fleece? Nah, she's the SID. They'll ask Petrino questions in a 150-seat auditorium, but they could have done it in his pickup on the way to lunch.
It isn't that college football is unpopular in Moscow, Idaho. "We're passionate," city council member Gina Taruscio says. "Some of us to a fault." There just aren't many media outlets on the Palouse, as the fertile land that rolls south and east from Spokane is called. There aren't many people either. Moscow and Pullman, Washington, separated by 8 miles of nothing and a state line, combine for a population of about 55,000, not including students. Pullman has Washington State, which plays in the Pac-12. And where does that leave Idaho? "In a tough spot," Jurich says. "Severely handcuffed because of geography."
It makes you wonder what the Vandals were thinking when they decided to play Division I football. "Boise State," says Mark Schlereth, the ESPN analyst who played football at Idaho in the 1980s. "Plain and simple."
A junior college until 1965, Boise had the good fortune to be located in the capital, where the people are -- as well as the Albertsons money, from the grocery chain that was founded there. It had a blue turf field and enough ambition for two universities. What it didn't have was a good football team. A dozen straight years, from 1982 to 1993, the Vandals beat the Broncos. "I played in the Big Sky," says Jurich, who kicked at Northern Arizona. "Idaho was the premier team. Boise State was an afterthought."
If Boise State could hang with America's best teams, the feeling was, surely Idaho could. So when the Broncos announced their intention to join the Big West in 1994, Idaho followed. "I thought they were crazy," Schlereth says now. "In Boise, you have the community, the infrastructure and the money to make this work. You can recruit a bunch of these kids who would have been Pac-10 players but couldn't get eligible at Cal, at Stanford, at USC. We don't have the facilities. We don't have the infrastructure. We don't have the money. We're doomed to fail. I get why they did it. I just never thought it was a great idea."
Paul Petrino was already there in 1994, coaching receivers and running backs, when the announcement was made. He'd been hired on the recommendation of his brother, who worked at Idaho before heading up the ladder to Arizona State. Before that, Paul had followed Bobby, who is six years older, to Capital High in Helena, Montana, as an option quarterback. Then he spurned interest from Air Force and followed him to Carroll College, where their father, Bob Petrino, coached. "As a coach's kid, you understand that your family is happy or sad a lot of times based on whether Dad's team wins," he says. "I knew that by playing for him, we were going to win. So my dad was going to be happy."
Bob Sr. hadn't planned on a career at Carroll. He lobbied for the Montana and Montana State jobs, but his own ladder extended only so high. "I don't think his ambition was any different than my brother's or mine," Paul says. "It just turned out different." Bob planted a flag in Helena, a city about Moscow's size. He won 15 conference championships, reached the NAIA semifinals three times with Paul at quarterback and set in motion a program that would win six national titles in a decade. "The greatest statement I ever heard my dad make," says Bobby Petrino, "was 'You make the big time wherever you're at.'"
Think those words are echoing now? Paul followed his brother from job to job, Idaho to Louisville to the Atlanta Falcons to Arkansas, working as an assistant when Bobby was a coordinator, a coordinator when Bobby was head coach. They were a great team, the two of them. "He's an unbelievable coach," Bobby says. "A great motivator. His style, his aggressiveness, the way he goes about his business on the practice field. I wish I was with him every day." But Paul and his wife, Maya, had a timetable. By the time the twins were ready for high school, he'd have a team to run. "We missed it by a year," Paul says.
When Spear called in 2013, Paul remembered Idaho as the friendly place he'd left two decades before. And sure, the students still hang out at the beer bars along Main Street and play Frisbee on the lawn that runs the length of campus. But college football had changed irrevocably, and it left Idaho behind. The Kibbie Dome's 16,000 capacity is the FBS's second smallest, about one-seventh the size of Michigan's Big House. Ticket sales when he arrived grossed less than $500,000, compared with top programs that were making more than $30 million. Morale was low; the team's GPA was lower. "I didn't know it was going to be as hard as it was," Paul says. "It's been as hard as anything you ever do in your life."
At Louisville and Arkansas, the Petrinos set their sights on becoming No. 1. That isn't happening at Idaho. At best you go to a bowl, which the Vandals have done twice before this season, in 1998 and 2009. Each time, they traveled to Boise for the Humanitarian Bowl, where they don't exactly hand out leis. This year, after an 8-4 finish, the Vandals again headed to Boise, to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Thursday. A real bowl experience, "the kind you tell your grandkids about," was Paul's goal.
So when university president Chuck Staben summoned him to break the news about the FCS, Paul took it hard. "He'd come here to be a [FBS] coach," Maya says. Then he heard his father's words. Paul's own son, one of those twins, is playing for him at Idaho. The other twin, his daughter, plays softball at Montana, which in the scheme of things isn't far. And although Bobby would hire him back in a heartbeat -- Louisville's current offensive coordinator makes nearly $200,000 more than Paul's $417,000 salary -- Paul looks in the mirror and sees a head coach.
He leaned forward and told his president: "Then I will win you a national championship in the FCS."
MAKE THE BIG TIME where you are. Jurich understands. They thought he'd lost his mind in 1997 when he left Colorado State, and a stable home in the Western Athletic Conference, for Louisville. "The phone calls I got," he says, shaking his head. "'Tom, you're going to the graveyard.'"
When Jurich arrived, the Cardinals played in something called Conference USA, which was a step up after two decades of no conference. In its last home game of 1997, Louisville had drawn 12,850, less than the crowd at the season-ending game at Idaho that year.
Now it has a $94 million athletic budget. Earlier this year, it fit a record 55,642 fans into Papa John's Cardinal Stadium for the Florida State game. Construction on a $55 million addition began as soon as the regular season ended. This past summer, Petrino's contract rolled into a seven-year extension that could pay him more than $30 million.
Three years ago, Louisville's baseball team reached the College World Series, women's basketball played in the NCAA final, the men won a national championship and the football team beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The ultimate validation of an FBS title won't happen this year after that unexpected loss at Houston. But this season's heights -- a lofty ranking, a Heisman for Jackson -- only reaffirm that the Cardinals are on the precipice of college football's upper echelon. Jurich's vision is confirmed, and the financial commitment will continue to strengthen. "We're close," Petrino says. "We're right there."
At first glance, Idaho seems like the outlier. In reality, it's Louisville that has capitalized on a singular situation, one that isn't likely to be replicated. Jurich, who might be the best athletic director in America, saw potential in a metro area of 1.2 million. The city had no big league franchise, which meant that the Cardinals could be the outlet for civic pride. If the NBA's Grizzlies had moved to Louisville instead of Memphis in 2001, notes Larry Benz, the chairman of the university's board of trustees, there probably wouldn't have been enough oxygen left to start the fire.
For years, Louisville had been a commuter school, so the wealthy businessmen and lawyers with U of L degrees had mostly grown up in town. They were locals who stayed local, creating a rich donor base. (One donor alone, John Schnatter of Papa John's, has given more than $27 million to the school, apart from his pizza chain's sponsorship contracts. And he isn't even an alum.)
Still, little would have happened if the administration hadn't been set on building a winner, whatever the cost. "The president gave me free rein," Jurich says, "the flexibility that I needed."
He hired John L. Smith, who'd made his name at Idaho, beating Boise State all those years. Smith commandeered Petrino to run the offense. With Chris Redman throwing 45 passes a game, the Cardinals lit up Thursday nights. "People in this town criticized us severely," Jurich says. "'What are you doing playing on a weeknight? Saturday afternoons at 4 is when we play.' But if you want to build a program, you have to do it this way."
Petrino stayed a year, then kept climbing. In 2003, after Smith bolted for Michigan State, Jurich offered to make Petrino a head coach. With Paul as his deputy, Bobby went 11-1 in 2004 and 12-1 in 2006. But soon he was gone again, despite a 10-year contract -- to the NFL and then Arkansas 11 months later.
He stayed in Arkansas four years, making a bad team good. He might be there still if a motorcycle accident hadn't uncovered an affair with a young fundraiser in the football office. Arkansas fired him. In 2014, after his soft landing at Western Kentucky, Jurich came calling.
To keep the engine of Louisville athletics humming, Jurich knew, he needed to win. "Every school has to look at their mission statement," he says. "What do they want to be? Where do they want to go?" He gave Petrino a $3 million annual salary with a $450,000 payout for a national title. It was, everyone conceded, the going rate.
ON A FRIDAY afternoon in Wenatchee, Washington, Scott Marboe throws a bag in the trunk and sets off toward Moscow. "It's four hours of two-lane across the prairie," he says. But that's better than his friends' journey from Boise: "What they call the Goat Trail, along the Salmon River through the mountains and the snow."
Marboe's father played for Idaho. He did too. So did his son, though Louisville -- of all places -- recruited him. Marboe makes the trip for almost every home game. If he's going to travel that far, he wants to see top competition. When the decision was made to join the Big Sky, he felt angry. "My friends feel the same," he says. Staben, Idaho's president, heard it in the letters and emails he received from alumni: I will never go to another game.
But Marboes are rare. Attendance at the Kibbie Dome remains disappointing; last season the Vandals ranked 123rd out of 127 in the FBS. As for road games, imagine the trip from Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport to San Marcos, Texas. "We're going to Texas State in November," Staben says. "I believe we've sold 28 of our allotted tickets." Even Marboe understands that the current situation is unsustainable. "I don't want to see it, but I get it," he says. "You can't win the arms race. Not at Idaho."
The cost of doing business at college football's highest level has led athletic departments deep into the red. They compensate by dipping into general funds, taking money meant for academic scholarships or concert halls, or with sponsorships and donations. Marboe and his buddies give and give, but in the end it makes little difference. "We don't have a Papa John's," Marboe says. "We don't have a booster like Boone Pickens to come in and write a check," as Pickens did for his own alma mater, Oklahoma State. "Wish we did, but we don't."
Big Sky schools, Staben argues, don't need Boone Pickens. According to the NCAA's Report on Finances, the median cost of a student-athlete is $110,000 in the FBS but under $40,000 in the FCS. FCS teams sacrifice TV money and the chance for high-payout games at places like USC and LSU. But their competition doesn't pay $1.5 million to offensive coordinators.
And with Montana and other regional rivals back on the schedule, the casual fan has incentive to make the journey. "Honestly, I couldn't even tell you where Troy State is," says Schlereth, who supports the move back to the Big Sky. "Montana, Montana State, Idaho State, those are big to me." Two years ago, the Vandals basketball team won a stirring double-overtime game against the Grizzlies. On the way out, Spear was accosted by a man in a Montana jacket. "This is why you need to be in our league," he told Spear. "You see how fun this was?"
Paul Petrino appreciates the emotion inherent in Big Sky showdowns. He just didn't sign up to coach them. Idaho couldn't have landed him, Spear understands, if it already had decided to drop down. Now who knows how long he'll stay? Winning under these circumstances is likely to make Petrino a coveted property, especially after making Idaho bowl-eligible. "That's pretty amazing," Jurich says.
But if Petrino has national aspirations, he wouldn't have stayed long in Moscow anyway. In that sense, Staben believes, he's doing Petrino a favor. In the Big Sky, he can amass a gaudy record. "He's not going to get the Louisville job by winning half his games at the University of Idaho," Staben says.
One recent night, with winter in the air, Paul arrives at a barbecue joint off Main for his weekly radio show. Spear has shown up too, and a few boosters in Vandals sweatshirts, and drinkers at the bar who were there when everyone arrived and will remain when they're gone.
The UL Lafayette game is Saturday. Most of the listeners probably can't envision Lafayette, Louisiana, but Paul plays it up like Ohio State-Michigan. Soon Maya comes in with their 9-year-old, Ava, known for racing down from the stands to give her father a hug, win or lose. That's part of the payoff, people like to believe, of coaching at a place like Idaho.
Idaho was the first university to fully realize the cost of such intimacy. The difficulties of competing in the FBS make it probable that others will follow. Since the WAC's Brigham Young in 1984, no school from outside a current Power 5 conference has won a national title. So if they have no chance of winning, why invest so much in the effort?
Paul Petrino has no answers. Soon, though, he'll need to decide how much those hugs are worth and whether his career path will follow his father's or his brother's. He spots Maya and Ava and sends them a smile, then looks them toward an empty table. "Throughout the course of your life, you end up in different places, not always by your choice," he says. "Wherever it is, you make the best of it." If that's a half-full barbecue joint on a cold night in Idaho, well, it's his big time for now.