The bulk of my childhood was spent in the 1990s, which means my earliest memories of Cardinal football involve the Liberty and Fiesta Bowl wins, going to scarcely attended home games against Tulane at Old Cardinal Stadium, and wearing long-sleeve half shirts to flag football games because I thought it made me look like Aaron Bailey.
You guys didn't wear long-sleeve half shirts to flag football games because you thought it made you look like Aaron Bailey? Well you should have. I caught like three passes that year.
The other major memory that I think football fans in this state who are around my age have is the first game between Louisville and Kentucky back in 1994.
Now technically it was the seventh meeting between the Cards and the Cats, but the previous six were played between 1912 and 1924, back when coaches didn't know what a forward pass was and Kentucky was racking up basketball statistics their fans could brag about 95 years later. So for all intents and purposes, this was the first football meeting between Louisville and Kentucky.
The hype was different then, but it was there. Fans learned the names of players on the other team for the first time, people on both sides planned dual game-watch parties, I'm pretty sure there's still one of those "Game One" rivalry cups from McDonald's sitting around my parents' house somewhere. It was fun.
The game itself wasn't particularly enjoyable, especially for U of L supporters. Kentucky defeated Louisville 20-14 in a contest that was sorely lacking in the excitement department. I can't give you the specifics because at some point in the second half my friends and I decided it would be more fun to go outside and peg each other in the face with nerf footballs. Like I said, times were different.
Cardinal football has grown by leaps and bounds since 1994, and I don't think there's any question that the rivalry series with Kentucky has played a role in that. In every season between 1994 and 2006, Louisville had an opportunity to gain momentum right off the bat by beating a hated rival who also happens to play its football in the SEC.
To put it mildly, it was an opportunity the Cards took advantage of.
Louisville won nine of the next 12 meetings with Kentucky and clearly established itself as the state's superior program. During U of L's streak of nine consecutive bowl game appearances between 1998 and 2006, the Cards lost to their in-state rivals just twice (1998 and 2002). Their average margin of victory in those seven wins was 20.3 points, nearly three touchdowns (math).
In that period of nine years, Louisville football went from something fans kept a casual eye on until basketball season to a perennial conference favorite and burgeoning national power. And it all began with the sustained domination of an arch-rival.
Then things changed. The Cards won the Orange Bowl, Bobby Petrino bolted for Atlanta, and the Louisville/Kentucky game was moved to the middle of September in years when it was played in Lexington.
The infamous week two win over Middle Tennessee State in 2007 warrants its fair share of attention, but it was "Stevie getting loose" and beating Louisville that truly ushered in one of the darkest periods ever for Cardinal football. In less time than it took U of L to hire Petrino's replacement, the Cards went from being on the verge of being a BCS fixture to missing the postseason from 2007-2009 and losing to Kentucky four straight times.
Now, things appear to be changing again.
Charlie Strong has guided Louisville to consecutive bowl appearances, an upset victory over Kentucky last season, and a share of the Big East title later that same year. For the first time since 2007, the Cardinals will be stepping on the field this Sunday with a national ranking to their credit.
But the rebirth won't be possible unless Louisville continues to beat Kentucky.
For the program to get back to where it was during the early part of 2007 and have the chance to take things a step further, the first thing it has to do is take care of business against its arch-rival on a consistent basis. That's what big-time programs do, and Charlie Strong has talked often this offseason about his players and fans taking on the mentality of a big-time program. Upsetting Kentucky was a fun experience, but it's one Louisville fans don't want to have happen again anytime soon. Hoisting the Governor's Cup needs to become what it was before: a tradition.
U of L's biggest detractors have claimed that the Cards' brief moment in the national spotlight was nothing more than a perfect storm of the right coach, some abnormally gifted local talent and a modest schedule; a flash in the pan that can't be repeated. For the first time since those years, Louisville has an opportunity to work its way back into the national conversation and start to re-establish a sustained tradition of success. The initial step is the same as it's always been.