LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When tears filled Louisville coach Bobby Petrino's eyes as he prepared to speak to his players during a team meeting Sunday night, defensive lineman Earl Heyman knew that he was leaving the program.
"He said he loved us, but he had a decision to make and he made it," Heyman said.
The decision - accepting the top coaching job with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons - was one Petrino had flirted with seemingly since the day he assumed the head coaching job four years ago. Less than six months after signing a 10-year, $25 million contract with the Cardinals and saying "this is where I want to be, Petrino made the decision public.
But after leading Louisville to a 41-9 record - including a 12-1 record this season and a win over Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl - Petrino couldn't turn down an offer to run an offense featuring one of the NFL's most dynamic players in quarterback Michael Vick.
"At first, you're kind of shocked. You think, What are we going to do now?' But were going to come together," defensive tackle Adrian Grady said.
Petrino's departure could have a ripple effect on a program that was talking about competing for a national championship next year after beating Wake Forest for the first Bowl Championship Series win in school history.
Junior quarterback Brian Brohm and injured running back Michael Bush have until Jan. 15 to decide whether they'll return next fall, and a coaching change could be factor in their decision to come back. Neither player was made available to the media on Sunday night, as most players walked out of the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex talking in small groups with slightly stunned looks on their faces.
"I think it'll bring us extra-closer," Heyman said. "We've faced diversity this whole season."
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said in a statement on Sunday night the Cardinals will move quickly to fill the head coaching job. Jurich is expected to address the opening during a news conference Monday.
The Falcons are the latest in a long line of college and NFL teams that have courted Petrino seemingly since the day he succeeded John L. Smith following the 2002 season. Petrino flirted with jobs at Auburn, LSU and the NFL's Oakland Raiders, but said no each time.
When Petrino's name popped up as a candidate for the Alabama job in late-November, he hastily put out a statement saying, "I'm not a candidate for any job openings."
"I thought he was going to be here for 10 years," Heyman said. "But you can't fault him for looking out for his family."
For more coverage of the Louisville Cardinals coaching search, check out CardinalSports.com.