U of L football, a look back

I’ve had some people ask for some kind of perspective on things that have happened to bring about the current state of U of L football. Each of the following is an excerpt of a column of mine written on the date listed. All appeared in print. They are not a comprehensive recounting, but they do lead you through the highlights (lowlights) of what we’ve seen.

Sept. 21, 2007

But the message of this upheaval (after the UK loss) to Kragthorpe is just as clear. Fans aren’t just upset at losing a game. It’s far more. They’re worried about seeing a defense that can’t even get lined up properly. They’re confused by a lack of candor from the coach. The national championship aspirations for this team were out of line but the team’s own media guide this year trumpeted that the team has “the talent to repeat as Big East champions and a return to a BCS bowl game.”

At the moment, those projections seem in serious doubt. And though frustration is high over what happened at UK, it’s just as high over what might happen in the next nine games.

“It falls on me,” Kragthorpe said of the responsibility for improving the situation. “Because I’m the ship’s captain. In a situation like this it’s time for me to make sure the ship is going in the right direction.”

Folks around here don’t know much about sailing. They’d settle for a discussion of the secondary. But the question facing fans, players and coaches alike is this: What kind of ship will it be?

Maybe they should replace that train whistle at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium with a fog horn. Because right now it’s pretty tough to see.

Sept. 26, 2007

Were we all crazy, fans and media alike? Did we miss the signs? I’m pretty sure three weeks ago we weren’t just imagining that U of L was ranked in the top 10 and at least had a hope of competing for the Big East championship and a Bowl Championship Series berth.

It’s a fair question. So I went back through the preseason press clippings to find some answers.

It should be remembered that in 2002, then-U of L coach John L. Smith did nothing but pour cold water on the preseason hype. Consider these statements he made one week before his team’s upset loss to Kentucky. (A warning to U of L fans who have grown accustomed to the politically correct discourse of Bobby Petrino and Steve Kragthorpe: The candid nature of these comments may be shocking.)

“We think we’re really special right now — too special to come out and play hard,” Smith said. “…We had a big, long talk about thinking that we’re special but not having shown that we’re special. … Hope we don’t believe what people are saying. … But to be perfectly honest, I don’t know.”

Before this season, we got no such warnings. Kragthorpe said this week he had concerns about the defense once he saw the inexperience and lack of depth. But when defensive coordinator Mike Cassity was asked on media day about all the starters the defense lost, he said, “We did lose some quality players. But as I turn around and look, I see the Lattarius Thomases and Jon Russells and Rod Councils and Bobby Buchanans. Those guys have played a lot of football.”

He went on to mention at least six others who had significant seasoning. In short, he touted the defensive experience.

With practices closed to the public and media, the main preseason indicators came from practice reports produced by the program. We were told the defense dominated the next-to-last scrimmage. Kragthorpe touted the offense-defense “balance” in its final scrimmage.

In 2002 the expectations were out of whack. In 2007 it’s the team. The Cardinals simply are not what we thought they were. Or even what they thought they were. The national championship talk was nuts but it wasn’t coming from the media. Nobody on the C-J staff picked U of L to go to the title game, or even a BCS game.

I picked them to go to the Brut Sun Bowl. Even that looks pretty shaky now.

What does any of this matter? It doesn’t, except to say that while sometimes even we bomb-sniffing dogs can’t smell the explosives for the cologne, that wasn’t the case with this team.

The people who expected better weren’t out of line. They just believed the company line.

Sept. 28, 2007

(U of L’s) is a roster that isn’t so much used to heeding advice as responding to threats. Bobby Petrino was an intimidator, banned cell phones and hats from the football facility and, in general, flew into a rage at anything less than perfection.

Kragthorpe is viewed as less volatile, though in some areas — and sources say drug testing is one — as more strict.

Still, when asked if players might have relaxed because of his more personable nature, Kragthorpe bristled, asking, “Have you been in the meetings? Have you been on the practice field?”

No. Media aren’t invited. All anyone can judge is what happens on the field. And off.

And though it’s far too early to make a final judgment, the circumstantial evidence doesn’t look good.

Oct. 7, 2007

Kragthorpe has faced criticism both fair and unfair just as he faced expectations that were both fair and unfair. It wasn’t fair to expect him to improve on last season’s finish that would’ve meant playing for a national championship. It was fair, however, to expect him to beat Syracuse and Utah.

Given the talent lost, it wasn’t fair to expect the defense to play at the level it did a year ago. But it was fair to expect it not to be among the worst in the nation.

The criticism Kragthorpe faces for play-calling that has made a once-powerful offense now one-dimensional seems fair. Criticism for some on-field decisions, fourth-down risks or a head-scratching onside kick is fair.

At the same time, with the season half over, t
he mantra of “blame the coach” could be too simplistic. If there’s a disconnect between players and coaches, it can’t only be chalked up to the coaches. If players are getting into trouble off the field, that can’t all be chalked up to the coaches, either.

With no answers being offered, there’s plenty of chalk dust to go around and it will keep making the real picture of this team harder to see.

Nov. 18, 2007

I’ll give you all of (the excuses) — even the ones I don’t buy completely.

I’ll tell you what I won’t give you — that an offense with quarterback Brian Brohm, wide receiver Harry Douglas and the linemen and tight ends U of L has should be as ineffective as this one has been over the past month.

. . .

Until the final couple of garbage-time drives last night (at South Florida), U of L’s offense consisted of Brian Brohm to Harry Douglas. You’d expect that of a guy playing with the Cards on his PlayStation at home. Not from the actual team. That big laminated Card that coach Steve Kragthorpe holds? I wondered at times if it wasn’t a big Waffle House menu. Because the Cards looked scattered, smothered and covered for most of the night.

. . .

Regardless of mitigating circumstances, no coaching staff can emerge from a season like this without facing some harsh music.

Losing is one thing. A potential losing season is yet another. The program’s most lopsided loss in 20 years is another still.

Last night, the fire wasn’t there. Last night was a point lower than the team has reached this season, and perhaps as low as any seen around here since the Ron Cooper era — and that’s not taking anything away from an outstanding South Florida team.

Yes, programs have down years. Yes, this staff was dealt some difficult Cards. But I don’t think even they believe this team should look as bad as it looked last night.

The last time U of L’s football team was in this state, it left with a trophy full of oranges. I can’t blame a lot of fans now who feel as if they’ve been handed a lemon.

Oct. 17, 2008

No matter how frustrated the fans, U of L cannot act rashly with this coach, and it should not.

But fans do deserve hope. Many are paying NFL prices. They deserve not to feel blamed for what is happening. They deserve not to be treated like outsiders. They deserve explanations instead of justifications. And they deserve to know how, specifically, Kragthorpe plans to fix things.

This frustration is not media-driven. From the outside — and none of us has seen the inside — this team has looked poorly organized and ill-motivated. From flipping birds at Kentucky to saliva-gate at West Virginia to Willie Williams and his alleged pot grazing, this season has left U of L fans confused and embarrassed.

The on-field problems have been there on national television for all to see. And they are significant enough that change is a necessity. Offense, defense, special teams. Player, media and public relations.

Home Depot may sponsor college football, but I’m not sure even it would take on this project. And I can’t say, based on this season, that I’m sure Kragthorpe can put back the pieces.

Dec. 3, 2007

Still, fixing the offense and defense are only part of the problem based on what Kragthorpe said a week ago.

He said he encountered off-the-field problems that he had not expected, but he would not elaborate. He said he’d get into those more after the season . Yesterday, with the season painfully over and no bowl bid on the way, he declined to elaborate, even when I asked him not to name names but merely to shed light on just the nature of the problems.

He responded by noting that Petrino had one way of dealing with disciplinary issues but that his is different. As Brian Brohm pointed out recently, Petrino dealt in intimidation and fear; Kragthorpe punishes with playing time.

Kragthorpe said there were ” legalities” involved in discussing it further. Maybe he doesn’t want to further alienate players that he’ll need to win back. Maybe that’s reasonable. But if that’s the case, he shouldn’t have cast aspersions on them, the program and Petrino by acknowledging them publicly in the first place. The reality can’t be worse than the rumors.

June 18, 2008

(Anthony) Allen still talks with former U of L teammates almost daily, and yesterday he went out of his way to say, “The coaches there, they’re all great people.”

But Amos Allen cringes when he hears talk about U of L coach Steve Kragthorpe “cleaning house.”

“I read things about weeding out bad apples or cleaning up the program, and I have tears in my eyes,” he said. “These are not bad kids. Rod Council had some problems and really went the wrong way, but I know these kids. The coach did not take over a bad program. These kids are not bad. They’re like any other kids in every program. They need leadership.”

Allen may be gone. But what he meant to U of L during a brief stint at the program’s apex should not be forgotten.

July 21, 2008

On the second page of the media guide, a list of accomplishments from the “Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium era” is printed. Of the 17 items listed, 16 were engineered in whole or in part by former coach Bobby Petrino.

I can’t quite buy that all remnants of that list are gone. But that’s how the college football world now views it.

August 20, 2008

You’ve seen those lists of “most dangerous jobs.” Stuff like “farmer, bodyguard, logger and Alaskan crab fisherma
n.”

I have a nomination: University of Louisville wide receiver.

Wideouts – especially starting wideouts – seem an endangered species at Uof L. JaJuan Spillman was arrested on DUI, pot and concealed-weapon charges, and dismissed. Trent Guy was shot, though thankfully he is recovering and could return to practice today.

And now Scott Long, the lone experienced receiver left in all of Louisville, breaks his foot in a non contact drill Monday and is lost for the opening weeks of the season.

When Guy was shot, many rightly posed the question, “Should a UofL wideout be out in a club after hours?”

And now with Long’s injury, I submit another question.

” Should UofL’s primary receiver and lone experienced wideout be blocking on a punt return?”

That’s what he was doing when the injury occurred. What next? Hunter Cantwell as a wedge buster?

Oct. 17, 2008

In December 2006, just before the Orange Bowl, recruiting guru Tom Lemming told The C-J: “Louisville is getting close to that elite status (in recruiting) in such a short period of time. It’s mind-blowing to me. Louisville is the next team to go into the Super-16 group, and Alabama could be the one falling out.”

The day after Petrino left for Atlanta, UofL athletic director Tom Jurich said, “I think he did a magical job. I give him an A-plus on the job he did.”

But as losses mounted and players ran into legal trouble and the team began to experience more turnover than a fast-food restaurant, the murmurs began that maybe discipline wasn’t what it had appeared to be. New coach Steve Kragthorpe said he encountered some problems that he hadn’t expected. Jurich suggested there were things going on he hadn’t realized.

Where there’s smoke, well, you know. But unless someone wants to bring an outright allegation about Petrino, here’s what will be remembered: Only two UofL players were arrested in his final three seasons, including a two-year stretch with none.

Perhaps through sheer intimidation, he enforced a code of conduct so strict that a player whose cell phone happened to buzz at the wrong place would visibly panic. I once watched assistant coach Paul Petrino walk a player out of the football complex for wearing an earring into the facility. Hats were not allowed. On the field, Petrino’s teams looked disciplined enough.

There are those around the program now who will tell you that while Petrino built some very good teams, he was not building a program. Logic like that will give you a headache.

Nobody was more of a headache than Petrino – for the media, his staff, support workers, even his boss. And in the end, for anyone who believed him once too often.

But none of this should take away from what he accomplished here. There is something to be said for his gifts as a coach, his offensive mind and the players he produced. When he’s on, there are few in college football who can do what he does. UofL certainly wasn’t able, even just a year later, to replicate his success without him.

Petrino should not be penalized for being that caliber of coach. Even if there’s a slice of truth to it, it’s hard to say that he left a “mess” at a UofL when your eyes catch that shiny bowl of oranges.

Nov. 3, 2008

In its second straight loss to Syracuse, the University of Louisville fell to a program that, if The New York Times is to be believed, is already looking for a new coach. It’s hard to believe they wouldn’t give UofL’s Steve Kragthorpe a call. The past two years, he’s attended more Syracuse victories than 95 percent of the Orange fan base.

Nov. 9, 2008

PITTSBURGH

University of Louisville quarterback Hunter Cantwell said after yesterday’s 41-7 loss to Pittsburgh that the Cardinals’ season is “at a crossroads.”

Maybe it’s the intersection of Dazed and Confused. Yesterday they looked to be at the corner of Down and Out.

I asked coach Steve Kragthorpe where he thinks his team is.

“We’re 5-4,” he said. “And two weeks ago everybody loved us, and now nobody loves us. That’s just the nature of this business, the nature of football. We’ve still got a lot to play for.”

But with three challenging games left, the time for a U-turn is growing short. And yesterday’s loss was a continuous blinking yellow light.

Bobby Buchanan pounces on a punt that might or might not have been touched by return man Doug Beaumont. He can’t grab it, and Pitt takes over deep in UofL territory.

Asked afterward whether Beaumont had touched the ball or what Buchanan had been thinking, Kragthorpe said: “I don’t think Doug touched it. You’d have to ask Bobby that question.”

I don’t know. I thought the coach already would have.

Blink. Beaumont fumbles the next punt, and Pitt scores to make it 10-0.

Blink. In the second quarter Kragthorpe yanks Cantwell for Matt Simms.

Blink. Down 20-7 and driving in the third quarter, UofL can’t convert a fourth-and-one.

Blink. With his team down 27-7 and inside his own 10, Cantwell drops back and throws a long backward pass to Victor Anderson, who is covered and can’t haul it in. The ball, still live, rests on the ground for a couple of seconds like an Easter egg waiting to be found. Offensive lineman George Bussey, a step or two away and facing the ball, pays no attention until Pitt’s Ricky Gary picks it up and hops in for a touchdown.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

UofL athletic director Tom Jurich was at the game and planned to leave afterward to catch last night’s men’s basketball exhibition at Northern Kentucky. Talk about a long drive.

Don’t misunderstand. This season is much the way Jurich said it would be. Rebuilding, he said. It will take a while, he said. Seven wins would be great, he said. He was the original caution light on this one.

But he can’t have pictured it the way it was yesterday. It’s one thing to lose to a ranked team on the road. It’s another to look inept and uninspired doing it.

The road signs are not encouraging. These were some of UofL’s better players not getting it done on the most basic of plays, short passes, fielding punts, covering loose balls. The Cards have won just four of their past 11
Big East Conference games.

After yesterday’s loss, Cantwell, Eric Wood and Adrian Grady took turns trying to explain things, with no success.

It should not be lost amid the losses that there’s a great deal of character in that locker room. All of the players speak highly of Kragthorpe and talk about wanting to win for him and his staff. But this team doesn’t have enough talent to weather even a few mistakes, much less a pile of them. When a team with no margin for error becomes error-prone, this is what happens.

Do not expect Jurich to hit the turn signal. But the caution light continues to blink – not because the team is losing, but because of how it’s losing. And it should not be ignored.

Nov. 12, 2008

Vagueration. The University of Louisville’s Steve Kragthorpe sent this play in during a Monday Big East teleconference.

“Obviously,” he said, “we have not played good football the last two games. And that’s what we talked about as a team yesterday. We have got to get back to playing good football.

“And when you play good football you give yourself an opportunity to win. And when you don’t play good football in all three phases – offense, defense and special teams – which I don’t feel like we’ve done the last three, two weeks, then you’re not going to win as many games, obviously, as you want to.”

Obviously. This play, when well-executed, disarms reporters. Who, I ask you, could be against playing good football? It is argue-proof.

It also is a handful of edits away from a great Keenan Thompson “Fix It!” sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” Just replace the words ” play good football” with ” fix it!”

Dec. 5, 2008

PISCATAWAY, N.J.

The time has come for some answers.

The University of Louisville suffered its most lopsided loss in two decades last night, 63-14 at Rutgers, and the questions can no longer be considered the product of an unreasonable fan base or a knee-jerk media.

The thing is broken. Whatever it was, or however it got here, the ship – to use a favorite past metaphor of second-year Cardinals coach Steve Kragthorpe – has run aground and been boarded by pirates.

The time has come for some answers.

I’m not necessarily talking about a detailed explanation of how things got to this point, though that would be nice. When a program goes from winning an Orange Bowl to being the butt of ESPN jokes in two seasons, fans reasonably want to know why.

Last night’s game was the kind that U of L fans used to enjoy, watching their team try to score with restraint in the fourth quarter while the announcers essentially talked their way through a half-hour U of L infomercial.

But these downturns happen. They have happened in the past two years, in fact, to more established programs than U of L . ( See: Michigan, Auburn, Notre Dame.) And at this point, there are more useful questions.

Whether Kragthorpe will be back is not one of them. Tom Jurich said again last night that he’s going to “stay the course” with Kragthorpe.

Kragthorp e said this: “I’m in it for the long haul. If I was going to leave, I’d have left last year. I’m not going anyplace. I’m going to continue to fight and continue to battle. That’s the way I am, the way I was raised. Obviously I’m very disappointed with where we’re at programmatically right now. We need to be better than what we are, and I take full responsibility for that. B ut I want to get it fixed. I want to be here . I’m committed to being here.”

So be it. Let’s have some answers. If fans are going to follow, they need to have a road map. First and foremost: What is the plan for fixing it? What is the recruiting strategy? What is the offensive philosophy moving forward? What are the short-term and long-term goals ?

The time for generalities and allusions to inherited problems has gone, and fans want to hear reasons for hope. ESPN last night kept focusing on a strand of hair yanked from Rutgers running back Jourdan Brooks’ head. They should’ve had some cameras back in Louisville, where fans have been pulling their hair out all season.

Just as worrisome as the undermanned team on the field are questions about where the replacements will come from.

For a second straight year, Kragthorpe is looking at the junior- college ranks to fill immediate needs . Eventually, leaning on those players will lead to a crash.

Even worse, recruiting footholds that U of L established in talent-rich states like Florida, Alabama and Georgia appear to be drying up, and years of entrenchments that began with Howard Schnellenberger are in danger of being abandoned.

Next season will be even tougher. The schedule heats up. Some of the best players will be gone; talented defensive coordinator Ron English might be, too.

Last night, when asked to elaborate on keys, Kragthorpe listed depth, recruiting and “grinding, fighting and battling.” In the coming days, more specificity will be needed. Turnovers, penalties, toss sweeps on fourt h -and-one . The questions mount.

And they deserve answers. Detailed ones.

Dec. 12, 2008

For those who see red when they think about the current state of things, the gift of song. Sing it to the tune of ” My Favorite Things,” from the classic ” The Sound of Music. “

“High-powered offense and open receivers/ Game-plans that rock from a coaching deceiver/ NFL tailbacks who play second string/ These were a few of our favorite things.

“Double tight-ends and a powerful run game/ Pummeling quarterbacks till they come up lame/ Blowing the train whistle till their ears sting/ These were a few of our favorite things.

“Bird-stomping foes being pounded like beef steak/ Lip-reading cuss words for every slight mistake/ Traveling trophies all stacked up like bling/ These were a few of our favorite things.

Chorus: “When there’s Pat White/ When the Cats spring/ When the Cards play bad/ We simply remember our favorite things/ And then we don’t feel … so sad.”

Feb. 10, 2009

It takes a village, it seems, to raze a football program.

A partial list: Bobby Petrino, Mike Cassity, Charlie Stubbs, U of L fans, ex-players (both defected and dismissed), Lachlan McLean of WHAS Radio, Adam Neft of WKRD Radio (who was publicly upbraided by athletic director Tom Jurich ), everybody at 93.9 FM “The Ticket ” (posthumous induction), me, Cannabis sativa and Patrick Henry Hughes (honorary member).

“I’m not trying to pin it on Jeff,” Kragthorpe said yesterday. “I don’t blame Jeff. It’s all of us, and it’s me in particular. “

Well, it is now.

There’s no denying that UofL ‘s offense was subpar last season. The problem in judging whether Kragthorpe’s move is a wise one is that there’s too much “ambiguity ” (his word, and a good one) about how the offense was run.

Those of us outside the headsets don’t know what percentage of plays was called by Kragthorpe and what percentage by Brohm – and which plays were called by whom. Kragthorpe said yesterday that Brohm called 80 percent. I asked Brohm if that was right. He paused for a bit and said, “No comment. “

. . .

Kragthorpe said that he wasn’t happy with the offense all season, that it didn’t reflect his philosophy. He described that philosophy as “putting the best 11 players on the field ” and wanting “multiple personalities out of single personnel sets. “

How that philosophy has not been carried out by his coordinators to date is a mystery. Kragthorpe did say he likes to let his coordinators “put their stamp” on the team. But what about the head coach’s stamp?

For Brohm, a favorite son who acknowledged yesterday that this is “a tough time, ” these circumstances leave his sparkling Louisville legacy hanging just a bit.

But Kragthorpe is the one whose position is the most exposed now . He lauded his new staff yesterday, noting that his latest additions mean ” we now have four Super Bowl championship rings in our room. “

He’d better have the one ring to rule them all. Because there’s room for only one more member in the ROFL, and with his move yesterday, Kragthorpe made himself the prime candidate.

June 29, 2009

When you’re in the situation Kragthorpe is in, everything is a big deal. The small stuff is being sweated by your fan base and everyone else. Every fumble is magnified, and perception becomes just as important as reality.

The reality of this situation is that the high school coaches seemed to understand and that nobody sounded upset. If you took a poll, Kragthorpe is probably better-liked by coaches around the state than his predecessor (Not that it has translated to recruiting coups).

The reality is that Kragthorpe has plenty of opportunities for interaction with state high school coaches – camps, clinics, the recruiting process itself and one-on-one discussion.

But the perception is that UK’s coach thought the event important enough to attend. WKU’s coach thought it important enough to attend. And if that’s the case, there’s no reason – none – that UofL shouldn’t have been there in some capacity.

Where Kragthorpe was, while a matter of curiosity, really doesn’t matter.

To those whose donations support the program and to whom robo-calls about season-ticket sales are being made even as we speak, the perception is that unless there was a high concentration of important football contacts wherever Kragthorpe was, he needed to be speaking to the KFCA. Or at least have sent a high-level stand-in.

I found it interesting that Pulaski Southwestern coach Dale Anderson, the KFCA president, seemed to feel bad for Kragthorpe, telling The Courier-Journal, “It happened at an inopportune time for Coach.”

Anderson seems to understand Kragthorpe’s situation. But you have to wonder whether Kragthorpe does.

Oct. 5, 2009

The pressure on UofL coach Steve Kragthorpe after the Cards not only lost a game that players called a “must-win” against Pittsburgh on Friday, but lost in an uninspiring second half after leading at the break. His offensive calls, thus far, have been less effective than either of his deposed predecessors at offensive coordinator.

Oct. 16, 2009

One truth that should not be lost – when you’re a head coach and the debate leaps from whether you’ll return to who your replacement will be, it’s usually bad news.

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