Petrino grew up in Helena, Montana, and graduated from Carroll College with degrees in math and physical education in 1983. While at Carroll College, he played quarterback and began his coaching career there as a graduate assistant during the 1983 season. The next year, he moved to Weber State University, coaching quarterbacks as a graduate assistant there under Mike Price. Petrino returned to his alma mater in 1985 as offensive coordinator. In each of his two seasons in that position, Carroll had the top-rated offense in NAIA football.
He then became a full-time assistant in the Division I ranks as wide receivers and tight ends coach at Weber State in 1987 and 1988. In 1989, he moved to the University of Idaho, spending a year as quarterbacks coach before being promoted to offensive coordinator under head coach John L. Smith. In 1992, he took a step up the coaching ladder when he became quarterbacks coach at Arizona State. During his two seasons at ASU, he oversaw the development of future All-American and current NFL QB Jake Plummer.
In 1994, he moved to Nevada, serving both as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. During his one season there, the Wolf Pack was second in the nation in both passing offense and total offense, and third in scoring offense. The next year, he began a three-year stint as offensive coordinator at Utah State under John L. Smith.
Petrino arrived at University of Louisville for the first time in 1998 as offensive coordinator, following Smith. In his one season there, the Cardinals were top-ranked in Division I-A in scoring and total offense and posted the biggest positive turnaround among I-A football teams, winning six more games than in the 1997 season. He then moved to the NFL, spending two seasons as the quarterbacks coach and a third as offensive coordinator with the Jacksonville Jaguars. His place in Louisville was filled by Scott Linehan.
In 2002, Petrino returned to the college ranks as offensive coordinator at Auburn, whose offense significantly improved its position in the Division I-A rankings in that season. He would return to Louisville in 2003 as head coach, and has since burnished his reputation as one of the top offensive minds in football. Current New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, whom Petrino worked under in Jacksonville, called Petrino "the best play-caller I've ever been around."
On July 13, 2006, Petrino signed a 10-year, $25.5 million contract with Louisville to stay on as its head football coach. The deal immediately gave Petrino a raise from $1 million to $1.6 million annually, and he would have been paid $2.6 million in the final year of the deal. The contract was an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort by the university to put an end to the annual wooing of its football coach. During his tenure at Louisville, Petrino flirted with Auburn, LSU, and the NFL's Oakland Raiders before finally leaving the Cardinals in January 2007.
On January 7, 2007, five nights after defeating Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl, Petrino accepted an offer to become the head coach of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. His contract in Atlanta will pay him $24 million over five years. The NFL Network reported that a clause in Petrino's contract with Louisville will require him to pay the school $1 million for failing to honor his 10 year commitment to the school.
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