LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - 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 UofL 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 UofL's athletics 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 from the football house – that has literally changed the landscape of the UofL campus, not to mention the way the community looks at itself. Has any A.D. 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 UofL'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 Kentucky. At that time, the gap between UK and Louisville 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 AAA baseball Louisville Colonels, and, yes, the very same Manual Stadium were 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.
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By recruiting Lenny Lyles and three other African-Americans in 1954, UofL 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 20 more years before they went to another one.
During Lyles' era, Louisville football moved into the new Fairground 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 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, UofL 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, UofL didn't really commit to big-time college football until Howard Schnellenberger came home to coach the Cards in 1985, just a year 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 UofL 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, going to bowl games and lobbied for a new on-campus stadium. He laid the foundation for UofL football as its 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, signing copies of his autobiography in the parking lot and slapping hands with fans of both schools.
When Jurich came aboard, UofL belonged to Conference USA, a league so undistinguished that Schnellenberger bolted to Oklahoma when Louisville President Donald Swain and Athletic Director Bill Olsen overruled his objections and surrendered UofL'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, Louisville 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 2005 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 awhile, it looked as if the Cards might move to the Big 12. Mercifully, however, that league took West Virginia instead of UofL. 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 athletics 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 Louisville 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 UofL, and was put in charge of the search committee assigned to find a new athletics director to replace Olsen in 1998. 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 UofL in the last 16 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's or even your granddaddy's UofL 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.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes occasional sports columns to WAVE3.com.
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