Petrino inherited a program with growing expectations. Under the direction of his mentor John L. Smith, the Cardinals won multiple conference titles and reached a bowl game for a then school record five consecutive times.
Less than 12 months after U of L gave him his first head coaching gig, the school announced that it had accepted an invitation to join the Big East Conference.
"It's all out there for us now," Petrino said at the Big East announcement in November 2003. "We have the facilities, the city, certainly have backing by the administration. Now it's up to us to go out and be able to bring in the recruits and do a good job of coaching to put us in the position to go out and win a national championship."
He responded by building a team that quickly climbed into the national discussion. After a 9-4 season, concluding with a trip the GMAC Bowl, during his inaugural year, Petrino led the program into the top ten with a school record 11 wins, including a season ending win over undefeated and 10th-ranked Boise State in the Liberty Bowl.
The pattern of success continued when the Cardinals made the step up into the Big East. A second place finish and Gator Bowl trip in year one was followed up with another record setting season in year two. Setting a new school mark with 12 victories, the 2006 Cardinals just missed out on playing in the BCS Championship, instead capping the season with a win over ACC Champion Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl.
Petrino's second stint at U of L has many similar parallels. During his time away from the Derby City, the Cardinal program continued to climb. Once again, he inherits a team that reached a bowl game every year under the previous coach, including a second BCS bowl victory, a drubbing of Florida in the Sugar Bowl, and a thumping of ACC representative Miami in last season's Russell Athletic Bowl."I think it's very similar to when I came in before and took over for John L. Smith," Petrino said. "It's a program that's pretty well set and has great leadership. But now it's time to go to the next level, and going into the ACC and the challenge that that presents with the schedule and in recruiting, it's exciting for all of us."
Just as before, the stakes grow even higher with the move to the ACC. With it comes more national visibility, challenging schedules and a clear path to the national championship. Among the team's first ACC schedule is defending national champion Florida State, a road trip to Clemson's Death Valley and a season-opening rematch against the Hurricanes at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
"We feel like we can go in and compete," said Petrino, who compiled a 41-9 record during his prior tenure. "That's certainly our goal and something that we're going to work towards. But we're going to have to show it. That's why it's exciting to have a great opener like we do with Miami."
Also like the experience of moving to the Big East Conference, fan interest continues to swell. There is already talk of stadium expansion and the the conference road games are now even more enticing.
"I think it's really exciting for our fans to be able to see the home schedule that we're going to have and be able to bring teams in here like Florida State, Miami and North Carolina State, and also the excitement of where our road games are going to be," Petrino continued. "I think it's what our fans have wanted for a long time, and now it's here."
The school will officially make the move into its new home on July 1. It'll be a season, according to Petrino, that will be filled with plenty of excitement and tight ball games.
"It's an exciting time for the city of Louisville and all our fans, and it presents a great challenge," he said. "It'll be fun. It'll be fun to have to prepare real hard each game and most of the games I feel will go into the fourth quarter, and you're going to have to be in great condition and have good depth and be able to win some tough games in the fourth quarter."
This spring, Petrino successfully installed his high-powered offense and the newly redesigned and aggressive defense has him pleased with the direction his team is pointed.
"We're not close to where we need to be to open the season September 1, but with the attitude and work ethic that we have on the team, I'm excited about where we can get to as a football team."