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Petrino headed to ATL

    ATLANTA — Louisville coach Bobby Petrino agreed Sunday to become the new coach of the Atlanta Falcons, moving to the NFL less than a week after Jim Mora’s firing.
    Petrino joins the Falcons after guiding Louisville to a 12-1 season, capped by a 24-13 victory over Wake Forest on Tuesday night in the Orange Bowl.
    The 45-year-old Petrino met 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, but issued a statement announcing their new coach.
    ‘‘This is an exciting day for the Atlanta Falcons franchise,’’ owner Arthur Blank said. ‘‘Bobby Petrino is an extremely talented football coach who has done some tremendously innovative things as both an offensive coordinator and head coach, and he brings to us a record of success at the collegiate and professional levels.’’
    Petrino said he was leaving for 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. I look forward to getting to know the players,’’ he said in the Falcons’ statement.
    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 victory 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.
    The Falcons moved quickly to replace Mora, who was fired just two seasons after leading Atlanta to the NFC championship game. The Falcons missed the playoffs the past two years, including a 7-9 mark this season.
    Petrino’s previous NFL experience includes three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, including two seasons as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in 2001. He then moved back to the college ranks, taking over as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2002 before heading to Louisville.
    ‘‘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.’’
    Petrino led the Cardinals to the Conference USA title in 2004, their final year in that league. Louisville claimed its first BCS appearance this season by winning the Big East.
    Petrino’s name repeatedly came up for other coaching vacancies, including an embarrassing episode in which Auburn set up a clandestine interview while Tommy Tuberville was still the Tigers coach.
    Louisville twice renegotiated Petrino’s contract, giving him hefty raises in hopes of keeping him.
    ‘‘There is no question that he has a sharp mind, he is demanding and disciplined, and he is a motivator and developer of players,’’ Blank said. ‘‘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.’’
    The Falcons the past several days interviewing NFL assistants, including Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and San Francisco 49ers 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 he got off to a rousing start. Atlanta won the NFC South and came up one win short of the Super Bowl, losing at Philadelphia for the conference title.

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