Yesterday morning, the University of Louisville football team was in the driver’s seat for a berth in the BCS National Championship game. Despite sustaining (and weathering) some key injuries so far this season, the team still appeared to be competitive with anyone in the nation — a tough out for even the most heralded opponent, to be sure.
Today, they are totally irrelevant. Out of the national title chase, likely out of any shot at winning the Big East and getting a BCS bowl berth, and out of the spotlight.
a love story
I suppose a lot of people don’t understand what it’s like to really love a sports team, so I’ll do the best I can to share my story.
I remember the late 1980s, when Louisville was a virtual nobody on the college football landscape. They had a gruffy, pipe-smoking, moustache-laden, baritone-voiced baron of a ball coach named Howard Schnellenberger — the same Howard Schnellenberger who led a bunch of nobodies from Miami to the top of the college football world in 1984.
In 1985, Schnellenberger made the seemingly ridiculous statement that Louisville was a program “on a collision course with a national championship.” Everyone else in the nation laughed.
Everyone in Louisville wanted to believe.
And we did believe.
We started packing our woefully inadequate stadium for home games. We launched the Cardinal Crunch Zone, a frenzied section of the stands whose rowdy characters and spirit live on in the end zone seats of the new Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
In 1990, we shocked the nation by rolling out a 10-1 season and earning a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. In that game, which was played on Jan. 1, 1991, the University of Louisville earned its first major victory over the “old guard” with a 35–7 asswhooping of Alabama.
I watched it. I cheered. I was 9 years old.
In the years following the Fiesta Bowl win, I remember wanting desperately for the Cardinals to break into the national spotlight and compete with teams like Florida State, Tennessee, and Penn State. We played each of those teams through the first half of the 90s, and to my dismay, we were not competitive. It was clear that there was still a mountain to climb.
But we Louisville fans are a resilient bunch, and we still had hope.
In the mid 90s, our general, Howard Schnellenberger, left us for Oklahoma. In the process, he destroyed the program, but really not by his own accord. Fact is, we held onto a position of respectability because he was such a well-known coach, and when he left, so did our credibility.
We suffered through three awful seasons in which we were realistically one of the worst teams in Division 1-A. All of the joy of college football was gone.
I was raised on U of L, and to have that facet of excitement stripped from my life was a bummer that’s simply hard to explain.
When you want to love something so badly, but you can’t get any response or reciprocation, what can you do?
I left the city and went to Georgia Tech, where we had a competitive football team, a Heisman Trophy candidate, and something that Louisville was short on — hope.
Football games are some of my fondest memories of being at Georgia Tech, as the excitement and energy we had during my first couple of years were something that I had never experienced before. It was invigorating, and it made me remember the days when I thought Louisville might some day end up in such a favorable position.
Sadly, Georgia Tech never climbed over the hurdle that was Florida State, and the Yellow Jackets got progressively worse over my final two years in school.
Louisville, on the other hand, had acquired a great coach out of Utah by the nearly anonymous name of John L. Smith. John L., as we called him, breathed new life into a dead program, and he made Louisville competitive once again. Recruiting picked up, the team hammered out a great contract for Thursday night games with ESPN, and the Cardinals were back on the right track once more.
I watched with great interest as the team, which was nationally ranked, battled Florida State in 2000. Just like it was in the early 90s, it was clear that Louisville still wasn’t ready for prime time action, as they went on to lose by an embarrassing 31–0 margin.
In 2002, however, the Cardinals took it to Florida State in the midst of a hurricane rain storm, and they captured their first-ever victory over a top 5 opponent.
I remember where I was that night, and I remember the play that ended the game.
Over the next three years, Louisville continued to rise in national prominence, drawing some heralded prospects from Kentucky, Florida, and other states in the hotbed of SEC recruiting. With a jump to the Big East in 2005 and a quarterback regarded by many as a future first round draft pick, the Cardinals seemed poised to make a legitimate run at not only a BCS game, but perhaps even the national championship game.
This year, it looked as though the stars were aligning, as Louisville registered quite possibly the most impressive twenty minute stretch of football seen anywhere in the nation during a first-half blitzing of Kentucky. By the time most fans had settled into their seats and downed one beer, the Cardinals were up 31–0, and the rout was on.
You could see signs of the growing power of Louisville football all over the city — flags on cars, flags on houses, news coverage all over the place.
Now regulars on ESPN, Louisville became a media darling, and after racking up eight straight wins (including a huge win over #3 West Virginia), the team appeared to have a legimitate chance at earning a national title.
I was in the stands during the West Virginia game, and I could see how all the guys around me lived and died by every play, just as I did. We all shared the same sentiments, mostly because they, too, remember the Crunch Zone from the late 80s and early 90s.
We all remember because we love. And I suppose that we love it so much because we remember.
And we all want to believe that our team can climb the college football mountain — that we can share the same pride that fans in Columbus, Austin, South Bend, and Ann Arbor do.
It’s been a long journey, but it’s also been a tough one for Louisville fans. Each time we’ve appeared to reach a summit, we would fall devastatingly short thanks to just a few horrible stretches of mediocrity.
If it weren’t for about 60 minutes of terrible football over the past three seasons, it’s quite likely that Louisville would have been to two consecutive BCS bowls and probably a national championship game.
And today, we find ourselves in a familiar position.
After a 28–25 loss to Rutgers (who?), Louisville has once again been knocked off the precipice. Optimists would say that “we’ll be back next year,” but the truth is, one can never be sure. Being a champion in any sport is contingent upon opportunistic victories, and as much as I hate it, Louisville has an established tradition of blowing major opportunities.
A loss to Rutgers is so much more symbolic than a loss to West Virginia or even to Ohio State or Michigan, which could’ve been the outcome had we actually made the championship game. Although they have an unblemished record at 9–0, Rutgers is no powerhouse. They are not even on the same stage as the “old guard,” and although Louisville was trying to break into that mold, it’s clear that they, too, are not on this stage.
A great team would have taken it to Rutgers and walked out with a victory. An Ohio State would’ve beaten them. A Texas would’ve won. A Michigan would have rolled.
I remember our missed opportunities.
Miami in ’04. WVU in ’05.
Worst of all, Rutgers in ’06. It hurts so much more because it’s Rutgers, too. Though I realize that it’s a disservice to their fans (who believe just as we believe), Rutgers is a nobody.
For the remainder of this season, the Cardinals are nobodies, too.
I still love them, but they are nobodies.
I love them because I remember the hope I held onto, even as recently as yesterday morning.
I still remember.
I just want one more chance.
We all just want one more chance.