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When Life Imitates Art: Louisville Cardinal Football And Saved By The Bell

Just weeks away from the most anticipated Louisville football season in five years, this couldn't feel more appropriate

Woodrow Coll was a man of vision, Guy Fawkes was a man of action, Mike Rutherford is a man of passion. A self-described man of passion, perhaps, but a man of passion nonetheless.

Personal experience has led me to hold that loving one woman completely or supporting one team exclusively is a far more rewarding experience than playing the field or hopping on a bandwagon. The more you give, the more you feel, and I am a man of feeling...and passion...and candy.

With this lifestyle choice, as with any, comes a rub. Living a life truly fueled by passion means a dramatic limit to the number of things a person may give themselves too. This being the case, choosing who or what is worthy of your unbridled devotion is a matter of great concern.

People grow, interests shift, friends are lost and friends are gained; it's a human cycle that men of passion (again, I am one) are not immune to. But even during those tender years of childhood and adolescence, I couldn't help but notice that I was far more conscientious with my heart than those around me. Trust had to be earned. Love: won.

There were, however, exceptions.

A handful of nouns have captured my affection from first contact, and I have found myself hopelessly devoted to them ever since. One of those is a football program, the University of Louisville Cardinals. Another is a television show, Saved by the Bell.

Though these two very distinct entities have required an equally distinct brand and level of love over the past 21 years or so, that same extensive period of time has revealed boundless similarities between the two.

It's time for you to see what I've seen. To witness the joys and the clarity that a life of passion can uncover.

Let's take a journey.

The Early Days of Cardinal Football - Good Morning Miss Bliss

All great things have a tale of their beginning. For some, the beginning is far more humble than either the middle process or the end product. Such is the case for our two subjects here.

Literally, Louisville football existed during the early and middle parts of the 20th century. Figuratively, it was as lifeless as Screech's love life before Violet Anne Bickerstaff. The Cardinals played in just three bowl games between 1912 and 1989, and U of L considered the possibility of dropping the program entirely on more than one occasion.

Good Morning Miss Bliss aired for one season from 1988-1989, and now runs in syndication as part of the Saved by the Bell package. Many of the SBTB series' running themes are conceived in the initial episodes of GMMB - Zack's a trouble-maker, Screech loves Lisa, Mr. Belding is hilariously aloof - but the kids are too young to get in any real trouble or be involved in any particularly provoking situations, there are a number of flat or annoying characters (Mikey...sweet Jesus, Mikey), and the show takes place in Indianapolis. Miss Bliss (Hayley Mills) herself is completely uninteresting and incapable of any significant growth or straying from her core qualities, and thus the show's producers had no choice other than to alter just about everything or scrap the series entirely.


Though both GMMB and pre-Schnellenberger Cardinal football are openly scoffed at by just about everyone, including their respective fans, some of the names that best define the series/program got their start during these periods.

Perhaps the two Louisville football players still most synonymous with the program - Johnny Unitas and Tom Jackson - never suited up for the Cards when U of L had any sort of substantive reputation. In the same light, Richard Belding, Zack Morris, Lisa Turtle, and Samuel "Screech" Powers were all central characters on Good Morning Miss Bliss. Though each one of the names above are far more known for what they did after the period in question, they may never have reached those great heights had it not been for this same time frame.

Early Louisville football and Good Morning Miss Bliss each had their memorable moments (Lee Corso riding in on an elephant/"Rigmas, together, forever, Trevor"), but even the most hardcore fans of the program/series aren't especially well versed in either early period. I have respect for Lenny Lyles and the foundation of the Cardinal program, but I don't want to watch a replay of the 1970 Pasadena Bowl (a 24-24 tie with Long Beach State) anymore than I want to watch Zack convince the rest of his 8th grade class to invest in potatoes.

It's 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, TBS. I need some Spano at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday. Maybe a little Tuttle.

The Howard Schnellenberger Era - Seasons 1 & 2 of Saved by the Bell

This is the puppy love stage, and it's where some of the most vivid, lasting, and enjoyable memories occur. The Zack/Kelly/Slater love triangle; "We're on a collision course with a national championship, the only variable is time"; Buddy Bands; Ripping Texas by 31 at Old Cardinal in '93.

These are good times.


Just as Louisville is emerging as a name on the national scene after Fiesta and Liberty Bowl victories over established powers, the kids of Bayside High are growing up and evolving beyond the juvenile storylines that dominated GMMB and season one. They're learning to drive ("I was in the seat, I'll take the heat"), they're throwing and attending parties ("There's something wrong with this statue. Elvis likes to face the kitchen, so he can watch me cook!"), and they're strengthening their relationships by learning from past mistakes ("Welcome to the 'What I Should Have Said' theater").

There were no expectations for either brand during this period because of the pain of the past, but that initial scent of success is always beyond intoxicating. We weren't certain just how high this program or this show could fly, but each had done enough to make us want more. A lot more.

I may not have known enough about either the program or the show to be as in love as I may have thought I was at the time, but that doesn't make the memories any less sweet, or less genuine. Lennon said life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans. While I was busy dreaming about Louisville winning a national championship and Zack and Kelly tying the knot with Mr. Belding serving as the pastor, I was experiencing some of the best damn moments of my SBTB/U of L football life.

The Fiesta Bowl Victory - Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style

The first of two SBTB made-for-TV movies, Hawaiian Style has no real relevance to the series plot, and no one is entirely sure where to place it when it comes to the series timeline of events, but it happened, and it was f---ing glorious.

Similarly, Louisville's 1991 Fiesta Bowl trouncing of Alabama is seen as the program's "arrival" and the signature moment before the period of sustained success in the 2000's, but a large number of Cardinal fans are sketchy about the particulars of both the game and the season (I remember DJ Wood running into the goalpost/I always botch the lyrics to the Hawaiian Hideaway song). Still, like Hawaiian Style, it was monumental enough that all fans, young and old, are aware of its existence and celebrate it as a milestone.

Though the wear of time reveals that we may have over-romanticized each a bit (Alabama was only 7-5 in 1990/Why the hell was a grown woman with a child seriously considering the prospects of settling down with a 17-year-old high school boy?), they're both still adequately significant enough to warrant a stand-alone spot in the bigger story of their respective entities.

The John L. Smith Era - The "Malibu Sands" Summer Run

When you get the sense that a good thing has started to go stale (Cooper), the only move on the table is a drastic change. Some people send their main characters to an exclusive beach resort to work for the summer, others hire an offensive-centric cowboy from Utah State.

Both moves achieved the goal of keeping their fan base interested.

Smith took Louisville to five straight bowl games (we only won one), Zack messed around with a new chick (she was like a five...solid eight about seven years later, though), and Kelly wore a bathing suit on more than one occasion (Chris Redman was awesome).


Fun times to be sure, but the sense that something even better was both desired and lurking around the bend was always unavoidably present.

The Bobby Petrino Era - Saved by the Bell Season 3 (Excluding Malibu Sands Episodes)

My God, where to begin.

These were the best weekday afternoons in front of the TV/Thursday nights at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium of my life. Brian Brohm, Michael Bush, Art Carmody, Amobi Okoye/Zack Attack, locked in the mall, Becky the duck, Murder Mystery.

I'm afraid to wonder if anything will ever be better.


Of course even when something is clicking on all cylinders, perfection is still too much to ask for.

Bobby Petrino possesses an unquestionably brilliant football mind, but his inability to adjust once his opponents had appropriately reacted to his original game plan cost Louisville dearly in both its '04 loss at Miami and '06 collapse at Rutgers. In the same vein, the two-part Christmas special near the tail of season three is painful and features easily the worst of Zack's many casual love interests (I don't care that she's homeless, bro. I do care that she's hideous.).

But those examples are like saying you wish Mila Kunis has better looking toes. This was Saved by the Bell and Louisville Cardinal football at their peak.

Sure they may have driven drunk (Zack), fired paintballs at people (Scott Long and Chris Vaughn), gotten hooked on caffeine pills (Jessie), or smoked a little bit of weed (3/4 of the team), but they dealt with the ire(?) of their parents or ran stadium stairs at 4 in the morning, and after that everything was cool. They're kids. Things happen. No reason to stop enjoying all the success.

So why did it all have to end? Why couldn't the happiness be unending?

Ask Bobby Petrino. Ask Kelly Kapowski.

Petrino and Kapowski are essentially identical twins for these respective periods. Neither are bigger than the show/program itself, but both are equally instrumental in the show/program reaching its maximum potential.

Despite their brilliance, unmistakable signals that each possessed the ability to hurt us considerably popped up before the hammer ultimately dropped. Petrino flirted with Auburn, Kapowski flirted with her boss (that asshole Jeff from UCLA). Petrino secretly flew down to Alabama to interview with the Tigers and had his cover blown, Kapowski got caught canoodling with Jeff at the movies and ultimately had to break things off with Zack.

And still, like the hopeless romantic I am and always will be, I forgave and soldiered on. Petrino was winning football games, Kelly was looking better than ever, and Jeff was staying away for the most part. When the good is that good, who wouldn't hold out hope that perpetual happiness is a real possibility?

And then, what I think everyone always knew would eventually happen, happened. Without a real explanation from either, Petrino bolted for Atlanta and Kapowski bolted for (presumably) Paris. The former would go on to be a giant flop in the NFL, and the latter would eventually discover her Pac-10 flame had been drilling sluts from The Attic for months. I took little joy from either failure. They were gone, and that was all that really mattered.

As the omni-present they say, the show must go on. Ample replacements would be found and the good times would continue to roll.




The Steve Kragthorpe Era - The Tori Episodes

In hindsight, it seems so incredibly foolish to ever believe it could be so simple.

A solid football mind with a solid reputation and some past success. An attractive new love interest for Zack with some intriguing personality traits. All the other major players that made this program/series so successful are still here, so let's go ahead and get this guy/girl in here and keep this thing rolling.

The fact that we were woefully ignorant in our optimism for a painless transition was apparent almost immediately.

Turns out the guy isn't a great football mind, he's not good at dealing with the players, and his past success really wasn't all that successful. And the girl? Not that attractive, I'm not sure why anyone thought people would find the fact that she rides a motorcycle endearing, and holy shit she's annoying.


These are the bad times. Worse than the bad times of years past because now we'd been spoiled by the highest degree of success we'd ever known. Spoiled by the feeling that everything good would always be, that greatness was merely our established reality.

To this day I'm not sure where I found the strength to watch those games/episodes. I suppose it had to be a combination of leftover power from the past, and an unfailing faith that if it once was, it could be again.

The Charlie Strong Era - Saved by the Bell Season Four (Sans Tori Episodes)

The SBTB premiere for season four was "The Fight," the episode where the famous hallway brawl between Zack and Slater takes place. Though Morris and Albert Clifford were supposed to be quarreling over a never-to-be-seen-again Joanna, watching it today you get the sense that it was more than that. With Zack's right cross and Slater's wrestling slam, the show seemed to be expressing its frustration and a sense of inadequacy due to the failures of the Tori episodes. The cast and crew weren't going to stand for a diminished product, and the strong '92 debut was evidence of that.

By now, most Louisville fans have heard at least some form of the story of Charlie Strong's introduction to the Louisville football team. The key points of the tale are that Strong let his players know that the downward trend of the program was not going to continue, and he conveyed this point in a significantly aggressive manner. The result was a drastically bettered climate, across-the-board improvements in the classroom, and the program's first bowl appearance and victory in four years.

Season four of SBTB would go on to produce some of the series' most memorable moments. Kelly returns, Zack and Jessie finally share an intimate moment, the gang attends prom for the 17th time, Zack makes the SAT his bitch, and our six friends finally graduate high school (How is Zack the last one to walk across the stage and get his diploma from Belding? Pretty sure having the last name "Morris" should place him right in the middle of the procession).

Whether or not the Strong era will continue on a path of similar success is to be decided, but significant recruiting success and the rapid development of current players seems to indicate that it will.

The Future

If Saved by the Bell: The College Years is any indication of the future of the Louisville football program (it is), then things after Charlie Strong are going to be up and down. There are going to be insane highs (Kelly's back!), and equally insane lows (She's got short hair and she's banging her professor).

Also, college Screech is more depressing than anything, Alex is extremely hit-or-miss in all areas, and Leslie needs to be a tad hotter to hold down the alpha female role. What does all this mean for Cardinal football? I don't know. Something, I guess.

As for the ultimate question in regards to Louisville football: Yes, the Cardinals are going to win a national championship one day. How do I know? Because of the absolutely perfect Zack and Kelly montage during their ceremony in Saved by the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas.

Collision course.