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Delusions of Grandeur: A Cardinal Football Tradition

Louisville fans are adorable. As a new college football season dawns, they are instilled with absolute confidence that their program once again sits at the precipice of college football greatness. Their trusted Athletics Director, Tom Jurich, has mercifully descended to the mortal realm draped in the mock turtleneck of knowledge, and removed the singular obstacle to a Cardinal title-palooza: the despised Steve Kragthorpe. (Never mind that Jurich hired him, or that Kragthorpe was trumpeted as an offensive genius by the same Card fans three years ago.) No, in the mind of Card-nation, Kragthrope is an imbecile, and his ouster will lead the Cards back to their rightful place among the elite of the college football universe. I wonder when it will dawn on our red-clad friends that their program already resides in its rightful place? In other words, Kragthorpe’s Louisville is the rule, not the exception.

The myth of Louisville as a legitimate football power was initiated with the reign of Howard Schnellenberger beginning in 1985. (Don’t give me that Johnny Unitas garbage, Card Fan. The U of L team he captained in 1954 went 3 and 6 with losses to Murray, Wayne State, Dayton, Western and Eastern. If NFL Hall of Famer Unitas was the quarterback, how crappy were the rest of those guys?) Schnellenberger, who played at a real football school under Bear Bryant, was hired by Louisville in 1985 to jump start a program mired in mediocrity from the time of its inception. Schnellenberger talked big. At least I think he did. He is pretty incoherent most of the time. Still, he remains an icon to Card fans who tend to paint the picture that his era at Louisville was one of sheer dominance. The numbers, however, do not support the legendary status. King Howard went 54-56-2 with a pedestrian independent schedule during his 10 year reign. Of those 54 wins, only 3 were against top 25 teams. Included in this small sampling is the much-celebrated 1990 Fiesta Bowl victory against mighty Alabama. Typically left out of this inspiring account of David over Goliath is the fact that Bama finished that season 7-5, and had basically mailed it in by the time they arrived in the desert for a meaningless bowl game. Perhaps Howard elevated the Cards during his time in Louisville, but only from atrocious to unremarkable.

The Great Ron Cooper ushered the Dirty Birds into the Conference USA era. Despite playing in this abomination of a conference, Cooper managed to go 13-20 from 1995 to 1997, and was promptly sacked. His ouster led Louisville into a level of previously unseen success. The zenith of the Louisville program occurred during the watch of John L. Smith and the Bobby “It’s not you, it’s me” Petrino from 1998 to 2006, an era in which Louisville won at a level totally inconsistent with its past. Having said that, it is an inarguable point that these two coaches padded their records by beating up patsies from Conference USA and the Big East. In fact, during the entire nine year Smith/Petrino tenure, the Cards played only 14 ranked opponents, less than two per year. Even if it was against a collection of stiffs in leagues about a half level up from Transy intramurals, they at least won some games, which represents a historical anomaly for the program. Louisville has employed eight football coaches since 1973. Only two left town with winning records at the end of their sentence… err, tenure. So, with another new coach coming aboard, what looks to be the likely outcome based on the Cards’ history?

Card fans can trumpet their new savior all they want. We get it, guys. His name is Strong. The play on words found in your message board screen names are both original and awesome. Strong’s career record as a head coach? 0 and 1. You can talk all you want about the return of the Cards, but I say, a return to what? A return to free tickets at Kroger? A return to Conference USA? A return to playing in a dumpy minor league baseball park? A return to getting trounced by Eastern? And while we’re at it, Card fan, you may want to stop harping on your superiority over U of K. (Only called that in Jefferson County.) We are the program that is evolving in this state, and if you haven’t gotten the memo, we’ve taken 3 straight from you. You, Card fans, are the program who put a paltry 23,000 fans into your home stadium for Senior Day 2009. (Good move on the expansion, by the way.) The legendary Coach Schnellenberger once said that Louisville was on a collision course with the National Championship. The Cards are indeed on a collision course with something in about 48 hours, but it is not a championship. Get accustomed to mediocrity, Louisville fans. It suits you.

Article written by Duncan Cavanah