January 4th, 2013

Cards Reach "The Next Level"


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

Cards Reach "The Next Level"
photo from wsbt.com / by Chris Graythen - Getty Images

Men who built foundation of Cards football can rejoice

Otto Knop loved University of Louisville football about as much as anybody I’ve ever known. He came out of St. Xavier High in 1948 and played four years for Coach Frank Camp. Two of those seasons, he centered the ball to a skinny quarterback from Pennsylvania named Johnny Unitas.

He went into business after his graduation in 1952 and became a highly successful executive with Hubbuch’s of Kentucky. He was involved in his church and many community activities. But his first love was Cardinal football. For years, he faithfully supported his alma mater with his money and his presence and his devotion.

Along with the likes of Bob Bender (father of Sacred Heart’s Donna Moir) and Maurice “Big Mo” Wolford (father of new St. Xavier coach Will Wolford) and so many others, Otto – he was known as “Big Otto” to distinguish him from Otto Jr., one of three sons to play for the Cards – saw a lot of bad football in old Cardinal Stadium. But he never lost hope that a day like Jan. 2, 2013, would come.

That was the day when, finally, U of L took its place in the upper echelon of college football. The elusive “next level” finally has been reached. And now that the Cards have been accepted into the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference, there will be no more detours, no more doubts, no more denials.

Louisville 33, Florida 23.

Otto was such a football guy that “Bear’s Boys,” the men who played for Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant during his eight years at the University of Kentucky (1946-’53), made him an honorary member of their group.

So every year, when the group would have its annual reunion, Otto would listen to their tales of ending Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak in the 1950 Sugar Bowl. That team also defeated Texas Christian in the 1951 Cotton Bowl, but got upset by Santa Clara in the 1949 Orange Bowl.

Otto went to his grave without seeing UK, U of L, or any other state team match that record. But he was still here to see Howard Schnellenberger’s U of L team shock Alabama in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl. That was the pinnacle that the current team reached and surpassed against Florida.

So now U of L leads UK in major bowl victories, 3 to 2. And assuming that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater comes back for his junior year, the Cards are on track to make another BCS Bowl next season – maybe even the national championship game – while the Cats will be rebuilding under new coach Mark Stoops.

In other words, if  “Big Otto” were still alive, he could do a lot more talking than listening at the next meeting of “Bear’s Boys. But that’s as far as I’m going in talking about U of L football in a UK context. That sort of thinking is soooooo yesterday. Today the football relationship between U of L and UK is more or less like Florida-Miami or South Carolina-Clemson – state rivals who each belong to a major conference.

I didn’t expect the ESPN announcers to mention “Big Otto” or Bob Bender or “Big Mo,” but I was a little disappointed that they didn’t mention Lenny Lyles, the U of L immortal who died only a few months ago.

Along with Andy Walker and George Cain, Lenny integrated Cardinal football in 1954. That made U of L the first university south of the Mason-Dixon line to use African-American players, a significant historical and sociological milestone that’s not mentioned nearly as often as it should be.

By the end of his senior year, Lyles was known as “the fastest man in football.” He led the Cards to their first bowl game, the 1958 Sun Bowl, and was a first-round NFL draft pick by the Baltimore Colts, where he rejoined Unitas on one of the league’s best teams.

One of Lyles' admirers in those days was a young boxer named Cassius Clay Jr. Long after he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali and used his heavyweight title to become one of the world’s most recognizable figures, Ali would tell reporters that all he wanted to do was “make enough money to buy me a Cadillac just like the one Lenny Lyles drove.”

Ali was there Tuesday night, joining Tom Jackson, the ESPN commentator and former Cards’ linebacker, as honorary captains for the pregame coin toss (Florida was represented by former Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerful). Sadly, Ali looked feebler than he has ever looked in public due to the ravages of Parkinson’s syndrome.

Just as his crowds used to chant “Ah-lee, Ah-lee,” so did the U of L crowd – who outnumbered Florida fans at least 2 to 1 – chanted “Ted-dee, Ted-dee” in honor of Bridgewater, the brilliant QB who may well do what no U of L quarterback since Unitas as really done – star in the NFL.

Bridgewater has an arm that’s as strong as it is accurate. He can throw it hard or soft, long or short, in the pocket or on the run. Still not completely recovered from a late-season wrist injury, he took a hard shot from a Florida defender early on that knocked off his helmet.

Unfazed, Bridgewater got up and proceeded to riddle the Gator defense unlike anybody has riddled it this season. Or in any season, for that matter. He was helped immeasurably by U of L’s best defensive effort of the season. He also got a big assist from Florida Coach Will Muschamp, who was given the job instead of Charlie Strong.

While Muschamp was losing control of both himself and his team – the Gators came unglued after botching an ill-advised onside kick to begin the second half – Strong ran his team masterfully. Simply put, the Cards had a better game plan and, incredibly, real confidence instead of the phony stuff that Florida brought on the field. When U of L stood up to the bullies from Gainesville, they folded like a cheap accordion.

Faced with a similar situation earlier against Syracuse, Strong kept his composure. Instead of becoming more animated on the sidelines, he grew more quiet. He did not make a bad situation worse, the way Muschamp did. Class is something that you either have or you don’t – and Strong has an abundance of it.

One of the best moments for longtime U of L fans came when Strong and athletics director Tom Jurich hugged on the sidelines right after Charlie had received the perfunctory Gatorade shower. Repeatedly passed over by Florida, Charlie didn’t get a head coaching offer until he met Jurich. For the first time in his life, Strong felt wanted and appreciated.

He did not forget when Tennessee came calling a few weeks ago.

The ESPN announcing crew was so unprepared for what happened that it was almost comical to hear them search for excuses and explanations. If their script included a lot of chatter about how Florida should have been playing in the national title game, they had to shred it early. And they couldn’t even write the game off as some kind of fluke because the Cards simply lined up and beat the Gators at every position, almost every play.

Oh, my, how “Big Otto” would have loved it. Knowing him, he probably would have taken it to Bourbon Street and ended up punching a loud-mouthed Gator in the nose. He loved the contact – yes, the violence – of football. Late in his life, he even strapped on the pads for an old-timers’ game and played against Otto Jr.

This one was for you, “Big Otto.” And for all the others who have worn the red-and-black through the long journey that finally reached its destination Tuesday night in New Orleans.


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