September 4th, 2014

UL football marches into history with first ever ACC game

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


UL football marches into history with first ever ACC game
Louisville running back Dominique Brown signals a first down / photo and cover photo courtesy Louisville athletics

On a magic night in the ballyard on Floyd Street, you could almost hear the rustle of a page being turned in the history of University of Louisville football. The crowd could hear it, or at least feel it. That’s why a record 55,428 fannies were in the seats early instead of dawdling at the parking lot tailgate parties, as has been the custom since Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium opened for business in 1998.

On this night so long in the making, when the Cardinal elevator reached the top floor of college football by playing its first game as a member of the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference, it was only fitting that everything went exactly right. So the jets roared overhead at just the right point in the singing of the national anthem and the Cardinal Bird mascot, dropping from the heavens with the game ball in tow, hit his — or her — mark exactly right.

And up in his suite, Tom Jurich might have allowed himself a small smile had he not been wound so tightly about the 2014 season opener against the traditionally powerful Miami Hurricanes and the homecoming of prodigal son Bobby Petrino, whose previous work at U of L earned him jobs in the NFL and Southeastern Conference.

The game was designated as a “blackout,” meaning that everybody supporting the Cards was supposed to come attired in black, and, in a way, that also was a tribute to Jurich, who has more black in his wardrobe than did Johnny Cash. In almost 17 years as U of L’s athletic director, you see, Jurich has done more than hire coaches who win in every sport.

He has engineered a stunning building campaign — the most notable recent addition is a state-of-the-art soccer stadium just up Floyd Street from the football house — that has literally changed the landscape of the U of L campus, not to mention the way the community looks at itself. Has any AD anywhere ever done more for his school? It says here that the part of Floyd Street that runs through campus should be re-named Jurich Way.

As the team exploded onto the field amidst smoke and cacophony from the P.A. system, the only people who could truly appreciate how far the Cards have come were those old enough to remember what Cardinal football was like back in the late 1940s and ‘50s. Consider Harry Jones, for example. In the late ‘40s, he and his twin brother, Larry, were star football players at Manual High, which is located only a five-iron from U of L’s Belknap campus.

But when it came time to pick a college, the Jones boys decided to go to Lexington and play for the young Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Kentucky. At that time, the gap between UK and U of L was vast. The Cats played in 36,000-seat Stoll Field, a very nice college stadium, while the Cards split their home games between Parkway Field, home of the Class Triple-A baseball Louisville Colonels, and, yes, the very same Manual Stadium where the Jones boys played their high school ball.

The Cards had some decent players in those days. Center Otto Knop, who graduated in 1952, was such a fierce warrior that Bryant’s former UK players invited him to their reunions as an honorary team member. Bob Bender was another outstanding lineman. And then there was the crewcut quarterback from Pennsylvania with the fascinating name. Johnny Unitas. He had a decent college career, but eight rounds of the 1954 NFL draft passed before the Pittsburgh Steelers picked him. After the Steelers cut him in training camp, Unitas sat out a year before trying out for the Baltimore Colts in 1956. All he did in Baltimore was become a legend.

By recruiting Lenny Lyles and three other African Americans in 1954, U of L became the first school below the Mason-Dixon line to integrate its football program, a development whose historical and social significance should never be forgotten. As a senior in 1958, Lyles led the Cards to their first bowl game. It was 14 more years before they went to another one.

During Lyles’ era, U of L football moved into the new Fairgrounds Stadium, which was a nice baseball home for the Colonels but an unsatisfactory football home for the Cards. In fact, the field sometimes got so muddy in November that coach Lee Corso, who had succeeded longtime coach Frank Camp in 1969, put up such a squawk that the Fair Board voted to carpet the stadium floor with artificial turf against the wishes of Colonels owner Bill Gardner.

So in 1972, Gardner moved his franchise to Pawtucket, R.I., where it still resides, and Corso didn’t stick around even after getting his way, moving to Indiana University in 1973. For the first time since the 1870s, Louisville didn’t have a professional baseball team, a sad state of affairs that wasn’t remedied until 1982, when the carny huckster A. Ray Smith brought the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A team to town.

By the late 1970s, U of L football had sunk so low — tickets were being offered free at local convenience stores — that the university thought seriously about either dropping the sport entirely or dropping to a lower NCAA division. Even after it was decided to keep the program at the same level, U of L didn’t really commit to big-time college football until Howard Schnellenberger came home to coach the Cards in 1985, only two years after he had led Miami — yes, the same Hurricanes who played here Monday night — to the national title.

A native of St. Meinred, Ind., Schnellenberger played his high school ball at Flaget High, which also sent Paul Hornung to Notre Dame to win the 1956 Heisman Trophy. But like the Jones boys before him, Howard snubbed U of L and headed to Lexington, where he played on Bryant’s last two UK teams and Blanton Collier’s first two, making first-team All-American at end in 1955.

It was Schnellenberger who began recruiting big-time talent, upgrading the schedule, starting going to bowl games and began lobbying for a new on-campus stadium. He laid the foundation for U of L football as it’s known today, which is why the office-and-training complex at one end of Papa John’s is named for him. He was there Monday night, autographing copies of his autobiography in the parking lot and slapping hands with fans of both schools.

When Jurich came aboard, U of L belonged to Conference USA, a league so undistinguished that Schnellenberger bolted to Oklahoma when AD Bill Olsen and U of L President Donald Swain overruled his objections and surrendered U of L’s independence in 1995. Whether he admits it or not, Schnellenberger was wrong. At that time of consolidation and realignment, only Notre Dame had a viable future as an independent. Everybody else needed the safe haven of a conference for scheduling security, bowl tie-ins and TV contracts.

Under Jurich, U of L made a quantum leap forward in 2005 when it moved from Conference USA to the Big East. That was a good deal for the Cards until college football again was rocked to its foundation by a realignment quake that made the earlier one seem a mere murmur. Suddenly Big East football schools were moving here and there and yon, leaving the league looking no better than Conference USA.

And so Jurich began working the phones again. For a while, it looked as if the Cards might move to the Big 12. Mercifully, however, that league took West Virginia instead of U of L. Talk about a Pyrrhic victory. Today the Mountaineers are stuck in a league their fans hate, and the Cards are in what is arguably the finest athletic conference in the nation.

So these were the sorts of flashbacks that people like Harry Jones were having as the Cards and the Hurricanes took the field Monday night. Has any major program in the nation come as far as U of L in such a relatively short time? Think about more than 50 years of ups and downs, twists and turns, starts and stops that happened between the Manual Stadium days and the kickoff Monday night before a national ESPN television audience.

As fate would have it, Harry Jones became a trustee at U of L and was put in charge of the search committee assigned to find a new athletic director to replace Olsen in 1997. He began calling around to get some names and his buddy Jim LaFleiche from Wyoming said, “The man you ought to really check out is Tom Jurich at Colorado State.” The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Fittingly, Jones and LaFleiche were Jurich’s guests at the Miami game. Both admitted that, much as they were taken with the man in black, they could not envision what has transpired at U of L in the last 17 years. Who could? Said LaFleiche, with a chuckle, “Tom was making $125,000 a year at Colorado State; I think he’s doing a little better than that now.”

Jones recalled that Jurich was a hard sell. He was happy at Colorado State and didn’t know a thing about Louisville. But Jones flew out to Colorado to meet him and then bugged him, often with late-night phone calls. His persistence paid off when Jurich finally agreed to bring his wife, Terrilynn, to Louisville for a visit. And the rest of that is history, too.

Knop, Lyles, Unitas and everyone who has worn the red-and-black would have enjoyed the Miami game. Nothing bad was going to happen to the Cards on the night the new era began. After trailing early and leading only 14-10 at halftime, the first team of Bobby Ball II took care of business in the second half. When the game clock finally expired a bit before midnight, the scoreboards glowed with the final score: Louisville 31, Miami 13.

At 7 a.m. Tuesday, when dawn was breaking over the ballyard and the tailgate debris had yet to be cleared from the parking lots, the radio talk shows already were humming with chatter about new quarterback Will Gardner, the excellent play of the defense, Corvin Lamb’s 97-yard kick return for a TD, and, of course, Petrino’s demeanor (relieved and happy) in his post-game interviews.

The page was turned, the new era begun. This is not your daddy or your granddaddy’s U of L football program. But it was right and proper to remember them and what they contributed back in the days when nobody could envision the miracle that has transpired at Johnny U.’s alma mater. 

 

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