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Cards fans now happy campers: Petrino and Strong, all the rage in December, have changed scowls to smiles

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Life imitated jock art last winter when college football’s coaching carousel made University of Louisville fans resemble the teeth-gnashing, nail-spitting Cardinal head that adorns their team’s helmets.

Red rage suffused the city like a cloud of mustard gas.

Folks were mad at Charlie Strong for bolting to Texas in such a blind rush that the erstwhile father figure didn’t even say goodbye to his ersatz sons.

Coach Bobby Petrino is back

Coach Bobby Petrino is back

Some fans were madder still that Bobby Petrino was rehired in Strong’s place. Petrino had skipped town in 2007, just six months after signing a 10-year contract, and embarked on a sordid odyssey that saw him quit the Atlanta Falcons at midseason then fired at Arkansas for consorting with an employee half his age. 

But justifiable anger is no match for the realpolitik of college sports. Eventually, inevitably, the jilted dry their tears and the righteous swap their picket signs for pompons.

Resistance is futile; a new season is at hand. Might as well enjoy it.

By Monday night, most everyone had decided to let bygones be bygones. A record crowd of 55,428 packed Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium for U of L’s Atlantic Coast Conference debut. They left well pleased. The new coach took the old coach’s players and, like one of those giant pet-store pythons that now rule the Everglades, methodically squeezed the life out of Miami, 31-13.

It took only eight months to change scowls to smiles. Eight months to make reality sink in.

Like it or not, college coaches are mercenary gypsies whose loyalty belongs to the highest bidder. All fans can reasonably ask is that they follow Grandmother’s Law: Leave the place better than you found it.

Strong did. The flaccid incompetence of the Steve Kragthorpe error was nowhere to be seen Monday night. Kragthorpe’s successor, imported by way of South Carolina, Notre Dame and Florida, pit-stopped in Louisville long enough to restore – and improve upon – the hunger for high achievement that Petrino had left behind.

Any doubt that Louisville’s program is now superior to Miami’s, in reality if not reputation, was extinguished Monday night. The U has taken an “L” the last three times it has crossed the Cardinals’ path, dating back to Petrino’s first watch in 2006. The composite score: 98-29.

Monday’s game was a virtual clone of the 36-9 thrashing Miami suffered in the Russell Athletic Bowl last December. The faster, stronger, smarter players wore red and black, not orange and green. This was true despite the fact that U of L lost three first-round draft picks and a slew of other starters between Christmas and Labor Day.

Charlie Strong, Clint Hurtt

Charlie Strong (right) and Clint Hurtt

This was true despite the fact that Miami’s recruiting classes outranked U of L’s in 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Seems Charlie Strong, Clint Hurtt and Co. had a better eye for talent than the self-appointed experts. Fancy that.

Petrino took the wind out of the Hurricanes with a team that still bears Strong’s imprint, particularly on defense, a unit with imposing strength in the trenches and turf-gobbling speed in the open field. They practice the lost art of old-school form tackling — hit ‘em hard, wrap ‘em up and pull ‘em down.

They learned that handy trick from Charlie Strong, who left the cupboard stocked with fine athletes who play with toughness and discipline. Every U of L fan who took Strong’s name in vain last winter owes the man an apology and some gratitude. He did you right.

So did Tom Jurich.

The U of L athletics director could have taken the easier, softer path last December and hired one of the hot and trendy coordinators that experts tout when the carousel starts to spin. He could have flipped the keys of Strong’s well-tuned machine to a rising star like Derek Mason, defensive coordinator at Stanford.

“Bravo!” the peanut gallery would have said – until Mason lost to Miami on Monday night.

Seems safe to presume Mason’s fate considering he made an instant mess of the ascending program he inherited from James Franklin at Vanderbilt. The heavily favored, home-standing Commodores were keelhauled by lowly Temple, 37-7, in their season-opener last week.

Mason might turn out to be an excellent head coach, and Petrino might reveal that he’s not a changed man after all. So far, however, Jurich’s faith and judgment have been validated, much to the chagrin of jealous souls who are tired of squinting at his halo.

Game 1 of Petrino 2.0 was a predictably characteristic success. U of L was focused, efficient and relentless. As the Canes wilted, the Cards surged, scoring 17 unanswered points over the final 19 minutes.

Petrino, who apparently will never live down his fatuous reputation as a pass-happy play-caller, took the ball out the fumble-prone mitts of rookie quarterback Will Gardner and handed it to senior tailback Dominique Brown.

Brown bled the clock dry with a succession of unspectacular, sure-footed, sure-handed runs. He finished with 143 yards on 33 carries. No one toted the rock more in college football’s opening week.

A younger, greener, less prudent coach might have been tempted to exploit Miami’s weary defense with some deep passes, a calculated risk that few armchair quarterbacks would begrudge. Petrino 1.0 might have tried it himself.

At age 53, with 31 years of football under his belt, Petrino is a shrewd enough gambler to know that sometimes the best play is the safest play. Just check, check, check until you take down the pot. Save the bluffs for another day.

Jurich was never not going to hire Bobby Petrino. He was not going to look that gift horse in the mouth, despite the critter’s chronic halitosis. Jurich knew Petrino could take the baton from Strong without a bobble, as he did from John L. Smith back in 2003.

Success is hard to sustain, anywhere at any level. Microsoft is still trying to replace Bill Gates. The Dallas Cowboys are still looking for the next Jimmy Johnson. Wise leaders know how easy it is to kill the flame when the torch is passed.

Despite losing some of the finest players in school history – Teddy Bridgewater, Calvin Pryor,  Marcus Smith and, for now, DeVante Parker – U of L’s flame still burns. The fans’ ire does not.

Slap a smiley face on the side of those helmets.

For now.

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