Five months removed from the most disappointing football season in his tenure, and three months before what has become his most controversial hire takes his second stab at commanding a winning squad, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich uttered the word fans of all sports have come to dread more than any other.
“We’re definitely in a rebuilding process," he said Tuesday. "We’re very limited from a depth standpoint. The next two years - I just want to get through them.”
Jurich has evoked a number of emotions from Cardinal fans over his ten and-a-half years at U of L, surprise rarely being one of them. These comments were surprising.
For starters, I'm not sure the Louisville football program has seen any two seasons more important to its reputation than the two that lie immediately in front of it. Maintaining status is always more difficult than achieving it, and coming off a season in which it was dubbed the most disappointing team in the country by a number of pundits, U of L's status as an upper echelon program is very much on trial.
There's also the small matter of there being 14,500 extra seats in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium two years from now that are far less likely to be occupied if the team is still being picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East.
My first thought after reading the comments was that Jurich was simply attempting to curtail fan expectations, with the hope that an 8-4 or 9-3 season would be met with far more approbation than it would have (or was) one, two, or three years ago. It's like the kid who always got straight A's, but said "I'll be surprised if I even passed" before getting back every test they ever took.
This is an understandable approach, but if Jurich expects Louisville fans - the ones with memories of an Orange Bowl victory and legitimate national championship buzz still too fresh in their minds to be reflected upon sensibly - to react to the prospects of a late-December bowl game against an above average non-BCS team with the same glee that they did in 1998, well then I'm afraid he's going to be thoroughly disappointed. No one is expecting or demanding another BCS win before the end of the decade, but bowl-less holiday seasons or appearances in games featuring "dot com" in the title don't suffice anymore.
Perhaps the most alarming take on Jurich's comments is that they reflect a position he honestly maintains.
If that's the case, then it's safe to say he has company.
The Cards lost 12 starters and five NFL Draft picks from a team that became the first U of L squad in ten years to miss out on the postseason. A mere 27 high school players from the classes of '07 and '08 signed with Louisville, forcing Steve Kragthorpe to bring in 12 players from the junior college ranks. A five-star prospect hasn't committed to U of L since Peanut Whitehead, and there doesn't appear to be a Brian Brohm or Michael Bush floating around at Male, Trinity or St. X that the coaching staff could automatically have the inside track on.
On the surface, the situation certainly appears bleak. But it's not like the water was unendingly calm before last season.
Thirty years ago, there was serious talk of either moving the football team down from Division-I or getting rid of the program altogether. Eleven years ago, the Cards were being run off the field by Tulane on their way to going 1-10 in Conference USA. A year and-a-half ago, Louisville was winning the Orange Bowl and finishing the season ranked in the top ten for the second time in three years.
This program is nothing if not resilient, and one dismal season isn't going to be the blow that knocks over the painstakingly crafted home.
But three might be.
Here's hoping all the rebuilding gets done before Aug. 31.