By PAUL NEWBERRY
The Associated Press
Sunday, January 7, 2007; 11:46 PM
ATLANTA -- From his very first year at Louisville, Bobby Petrino's name kept coming up for other coaching jobs. On Sunday, he finally decided it was time to go. Petrino left the Cardinals to become head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, who needed less than a week to find a replacement for Jim Mora.
After firing Mora, who never seemed to get the most out of Michael Vick's enormous potential, the Falcons went with a coach who guided high-scoring Louisville to a 12-1 season, capped by a 24-13 victory over Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl.
"This is an exciting day for the Atlanta Falcons franchise," owner Arthur Blank said in a statement. "Bobby Petrino is an extremely talented football coach who has done some tremendously innovative things as both an offensive coordinator and head coach."
The 45-year-old Petrino met briefly with his Louisville players Sunday night to let them know he was leaving, said Kenny Klein, the school's sports information director. The Falcons planned a formal announcement Monday at the team's training complex in Flowery Branch.
Petrino said he took what "I truly feel is the best job in the National Football League."
"I am excited about the challenge that awaits me in Atlanta, and I'm equally excited about the potential that I see in this team," he said in the Falcons' statement.
His first order of business: Getting more production out of Vick, who became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards but never seemed comfortable in the West Coast-style offense installed by Mora and his offensive coordinator, Greg Knapp.
This season, the Falcons were last in the league in passing and 25th in scoring with their average of 18.2 points.
Louisville never had any trouble putting up points under Petrino. In 2006, the Cardinals ranked second in the country in total offense (475.3 yards per game) and fourth in scoring with a 37.8-point average.
Petrino had a 41-9 record in four years at Louisville, leading the school to the Big East title and its first Bowl Championship Series appearance in the Orange. He had just completed the first year of a 10-year, $25 million contract. ESPN.com said he agreed to a five-year, $24 million deal with the Falcons.
Petrino's name repeatedly came up for other coaching vacancies, including an embarrassing episode in 2003 when Auburn set up a clandestine interview while Tommy Tuberville was still the Tigers coach.
Petrino met with LSU after the 2004 season and turned down the Oakland Raiders' job a year later. Louisville twice renegotiated Petrino's contract, giving him hefty raises in hopes of keeping him.
"This is where I want to be," he insisted.
That all changed after the Falcons fired Mora, just two years after he led the team to the NFC championship game. Atlanta missed the playoffs the past two seasons, going 7-9 mark in 2006.
Petrino's previous NFL experience includes three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. He then returned to the college ranks, serving as Auburn's offensive coordinator in 2002 before heading to Louisville.
Petrino led the Cardinals to the Conference USA title in 2004, their final year in that league before moving to the Big East.
"Nobody thought this would happen, but nobody's complaining about it," Cardinals defensive lineman Earl Heyman said. "You can't fault him considering what he's done for this program."
The Falcons spent the past several days interviewing NFL assistants, including Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, San Diego offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and San Francisco assistant head coach Mike Singletary.
But Blank, who was aided in the search by general manager Rich McKay, decided to go with an established head coach instead of following the same course he did in 2004.
Mora was the 49ers defensive coordinator when he was hired by the Falcons, and the rookie head coach got off to a rousing start. Atlanta won its division and came up one win short of the Super Bowl, losing at Philadelphia in the NFC championship game.
After beginning 6-2 the following year, the Falcons lost six of their last eight games to miss the playoffs and keep alive the franchise's streak of never having two straight winning seasons.
Atlanta followed a similar path this year, starting 5-2 before losing seven of nine _ including its last four home games.
That didn't go over well with Blank, a hands-on owner who has spent lavishly to build a perennial playoff contender. He also was bothered by several off-the-field incidents, most notably a radio interview late this season in which Mora said his dream job was to coach at the University of Washington, his alma mater.
Mora said he was only kidding, but had to apologize after being summoned to Blank's office.
Blank described Petrino as "a motivator and developer of players. In short, he's a difference maker who will bring a strong identity to the Falcons _ one our team will buy into and take on as their own."
Petrino announced his decision to the Cardinals during a meeting that lasted only five minutes. Nearly the entire team was on hand at the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex, including junior quarterback Brian Brohm.
Petrino's departure casts considerable doubt over whether Brohm or running back Michael Bush will return next fall.
Brohm passed for 311 yards in the Orange Bowl and could be one of the top quarterbacks taken in the draft if he decides to go pro. Bush applied for a medical redshirt after breaking his right leg in a season-opening win over Kentucky.
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich wished Petrino well with the Falcons.
"I certainly appreciate all the hard work he did in elevating this program to where it stands today," Jurich said. "We're going to move quickly in hiring our next coach to keep our momentum going."
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Louisville and Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed to this report.