April 15, 2024

On a sticky South Florida afternoon last month, Oscar Brohm waited for his son Jeff to finish his on-field interview after Louisville‘s history-making win over Miami. Then, he moved in for a hug, pat on the back and hearty congratulations.

The moment had been a lifetime in the making.

Eleven months earlier, Jeff Brohm came back to his hometown and alma mater to become head coach of the Cardinals. While everyone around him celebrated his triumphant return to a city that desperately wanted him back, he immediately got to work revamping the roster. He believed anything was possible.

Even an ACC championship.

Now here he stood with his dad, having clinched the program’s first-ever spot in the ACC championship game. All Oscar could say was, “It’s unbelievable!”

“He did a great job coaching and getting the team together,” Oscar Brohm said. “These guys really played hard for him, they respected the way he did things. It’s just great. First of all, he got to come home. Second of all we were picked eighth and we’re going to the championship. It’s unbelievable!”

Safety Cam’Ron Kelly bragged afterward, “I kept the receipts! My first interview when I committed to Louisville, I said I’m going to Louisville to win the ACC. Y’all can pull that up!”

Kelly, who transferred to Louisville in 2023, says he believed in the vision Brohm had for the program. He was not the only one. Brohm relied heavily on the transfer portal to build a championship-worthy roster in Year 1. While Deion Sanders may have gotten all the headlines for his extensive use of the portal (and keeping of receipts) in his first year at Colorado, Brohm’s strategic use of the portal got better results. Now his program is in position to win a title Saturday night against No. 4 Florida State in Charlotte, North Carolina (8 p.m. ET, ABC).

Take the final stats against Miami as one example. Leading passer? Transfer Jack Plummer. Leading rusher? Transfer Isaac Guerendo. Leading receiver? Transfer Kevin Coleman. Top two tacklers? Transfers Devin Neal and Kelly.

“We kind of got an island of misfit toys,” Plummer said. “But we have an older team, and guys who have played a lot of football, and I think that goes a long way.”

The incoming transfers — all 27 of them — tell only one part of the story. Brohm had to integrate those new players with a freshman signing class and a strong core of returning players. While six players who transferred in under Brohm start on offense, the majority of the defensive starters signed with Louisville out of high school. Bringing everyone together after 12 new players arrived for the spring semester, then another wave of 13 arrivals came post-spring, took commitment.

“All the people we brought in obviously came here to win,” said junior Ashton Gillotte, who arrived in 2021 from Boca Raton, Florida, and leads the team with 11 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. “The urgency is there. You want to get to the next level, you want to push for greatness that you may not have had the opportunity for in the past.”

When former coach Scott Satterfield decided to leave Louisville for Cincinnati last December, athletic director Josh Heird knew his fan base wanted him to bring Brohm home. Brohm jokes that after coaching Purdue to a loss in the Big Ten championship game last year, he was ready to kick his feet up on the table and relax a little bit. Then Heird called, and he knew he owed it to himself, his family and Louisville to listen.

The Brohms are often called “the first family of Louisville.” Oscar played at Louisville in the 1960s, then went on to coach high school football in the city — including his three sons. Jeff and his brothers, Greg and Brian, also played at Louisville. Brian (offensive coordinator) and Greg (chief of staff) joined their brother when he took the Louisville job. Then there is Jeff’s 18-year-old son, Brady, who is a freshman at Louisville and student assistant with the football team.

In one of their first conversations, Heird reassured Brohm the roster was not a complete mess. Louisville went 7-5 during the 2022 regular season and had a talented foundation of players.

Brohm came in with what he describes as an “aggressive plan” to use the portal starting on his first day, Dec. 8.

“We definitely believe in the transfer portal,” Brohm said. “I didn’t create the transfer portal. It was put in place, and you have to take advantage of it. … Whether they’re coming as a starter or maybe even a backup, it’s still important to build depth, and more talent and competition to your team. We worked hard to try to get that done.”

Brohm relied on the staff that remained at Louisville to identify immediate positions of need. Those first weeks were a mad dash of evaluating the roster, evaluating players in the portal and ensuring they could hold together the recruiting class — weeks away from the early signing period on Dec. 21.

“It wasn’t just a fire sale, ‘Hey, this roster’s no good,'” Heird said. “It was all right, let’s take a thorough look at everybody on this roster, every position group, and where do we need help? Or do we not? And then put a plan together to specifically target these various groups. I think the other thing that did is it made all the guys that stayed here realize, ‘They’re going to give me an opportunity if I want it,’ and I don’t think that happened everywhere else.”

One immediate position of need was quarterback, with 2022 starter Malik Cunningham off to the NFL draft. Plummer had spent three seasons with Brohm at Purdue before transferring to Cal for the 2022 season. When he entered the portal again following the 2022 season, Plummer was hoping Jeff Brohm and offensive coordinator Brian Brohm would welcome him back.

“Just the way he coaches and the standard of quarterback play, just be able to learn from guys who have been at the highest level is something that’s really attractive to me,” Plummer said. “To be able to play in a system that I’m familiar with, I thought it was a good opportunity for me.”

Another position of need? Wide receiver. Jamari Thrash had a breakout season at Georgia State in 2022 with 61 catches for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns. He also entered the portal later in December and had Louisville top of mind because of what Brohm did at Purdue, specifically with receiver Charlie Jones, who had 110 catches for 1,361 yards and 12 touchdowns last season with the Boilermakers.

Thrash took his official visit to Louisville and went to a basketball game. That’s where he began to realize how much optimism the city had about a Brohm-led football team.

“A lot of the fans were telling me about how excited they were about Coach Brohm coming back to Louisville,” Thrash said. “That stuck in my mind, and I was seeing what he did at Purdue the year before, going to the championship. Being able to see what he did with Charlie Jones. That was a no-brainer for me. I just figured, ‘Why not be a part of that?'”

Louisville got three receivers to transfer in for spring practice: Thrash, Jackson State transfer Kevin Coleman and Tennessee receiver Jimmy Calloway.

All three are listed as starting receivers, along with Plummer. Because Plummer knew the playbook and the offensive staff, he became a leader right away, fielding questions about the offense from many of his teammates.

When the portal opened again in the spring, Louisville had a more targeted approach. The offensive line presented an immediate area of need post-spring.

Enter Eric Miller, who spent the first five seasons of his college career with the Brohms at Purdue, where he was roommates with Plummer. After Miller finished spring practice with the Boilermakers, he entered the transfer portal and chose Louisville.

“Jack had told me we have guys here that we haven’t played with before, a level of talent, speed, strength, that we can go do something special if we really want to,” Miller said.

Had Miller stayed at Purdue, his college career would be over now. Instead he has the chance to play in a conference championship game for different teams in back-to-back seasons. Louisville also signed Rutgers transfer offensive lineman Willie Tyler after spring ball. Both start on the revamped Louisville offensive line.

One other area of need: defensive backs. Enter Kelly and Storm Duck, teammates at North Carolina last season. Though they made the ACC championship game with the Tar Heels, neither played due to injury. Kelly first transferred to Virginia for the spring, before opting to head to Louisville when spring ball finished. Kelly, Duck and Baylor transfer Devin Neal are all starters.

“I knew they had the pieces,” Kelly said. “I knew what I was getting myself into even before I stepped on the practice field. The way they played in that spring game, I could tell something was special about them.”

In all, Louisville lost 26 players to the transfer portal and added 27. Brohm built a chemistry with those new players and the ones who had stayed through one forged purpose — to prove they deserved this opportunity with the Cardinals.

Brohm wanted players to bond together inside the facility. In lieu of going heavy on team-building activities, he tried to make coming in for workouts and practice fun.

“These guys are coming here because they want to be great at football,” Brohm said.

Brohm said a core group of the quarterbacks and receivers spent extra time with him breaking down game tape throughout the offseason. “We made some progress, and maybe I earned their trust a little bit and, and they earned mine. You’ve got to really be invested to get to know each person and what their goals are, and how can I help them get that done.”

The same went for all the other position groups. They began to spend time together off the field. Yes, they bowled and they swam together. Yes, there were far too many cannonballs from linemen. “A lot of cannonballs,” Gillotte says with a laugh. “Just being together, not even having to force it, that’s what allowed it to click.”

They also started to see something bigger than themselves.

“Probably the first week of fall camp, and really seeing what kind of team we had, I remember just sitting there watching film one day, and I was like, ‘You know, we have really good athletes. We have a chance to be really something special this year,'” returning center Bryan Hudson said.

Plummer takes it one step further: “Just looking at the schedule, there wasn’t a team that we were afraid to play. So I think we knew internally that it was going to be a special season.”

It could be even more special come Saturday night, if Louisville finds a way to beat Florida State and win the first ACC football championship in school history, with Brohm leading the way in his first year as head coach.

Oscar Brohm noted that right after Jeff took the job, he turned to his dad and said, “You know there will be a lot of pressure.”

“I said, ‘Tell me where you’ve been where there wasn’t pressure,'” Oscar Brohm said. “It’s a different kind of pressure, and he lived up to it.”

Jeff Brohm can prove that once again Saturday night in Charlotte.

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