"That was great. But, man, just think about next year."
Of all things I said and did during my college years that I now regret - and there are plenty - this statement ranks pretty close to the top.
It was the second night of January, 2007. A few days earlier, three friends and I had made the split-second decision to drive down to Naples for a couple of nights, then head to Miami for New Year's before watching our beloved Louisville football team play in a BCS bowl game for the first time in program history.
A surprisingly cheap and painless ticket search had all but forced the trip. Five bucks to see Louisville play in the Orange Bowl? That's cosmic peer pressure that would put any morally unsound 18-year-old best friend at a post-senior prom party to shame.
I was 22-years-old, and I had one semester left of college. I had no idea what I was going to do after that, but it didn't make me any less ready to be done with school. I don't know why.
Card Chronicle was less than two months old, and four-digit page view days were more rare than a Jonathan Huffman assist. I had no idea if the site would be around in eight more weeks let alone eight more years, but I knew that I really liked doing it, and that the few readers who had hopped on the train already seemed to really enjoy it as well.
I chucked up a quick post to let readers know that they might not be hearing from me until a day or two after the game. One person cared. Kind of.
That post went up at 5:19 a.m., about half an hour before we hit the road. One of our friends had a relative who owned a "shoddy house" in Naples where we were planning on setting up shop for a couple of days before making our way down to Miami. From the outset, it was pretty clear that two of us were going down with a primary focus on watching the Cardinals win the Orange Bowl, and the other two were going down with a primary focus on enjoying the beach and having a good time. And that was okay.
The trip that followed was the type that everyone should take at some point in their 20s. As you might expect, some memories have been forgotten and others were (probably) never fully processed, but here's the Cliff's Notes version of the adventure as best as I can remember it:
--We wound up carpooling down with three girls we didn't know particularly well. They seemed cool and non-quadruple homicidey enough.
--For the bulk of the trip down, Dan -- of New Orleans Final Four weekend fame -- and I watched DVD copies of the games from the 2005 Final Four run in the back seat of the old Buick that had been selected as the trip vessel. I remember us repeatedly remarking about how much different freshman Juan Palacios was from the JDP we'd been seeing for the past year and-a-half. The Brandon Jenkins block was also still the best natural goosebump-producer known to Cardinal man.
--It turned out that the friend with the family house in Naples had been completely slow playing the situation. The house wound up being a stone's throw away from the ocean and would have been a suitable host for some Real World knockoff on VH1.
--I still remember that the basketball team played UNC Asheville on the day before New Year's Eve. I think it was the only Cardinal hoops game of my conscious life that I didn't, at the very least, check in on to get scoring updates in real time.
--We drove into Miami on the 31st and spent most of the day at the beach (the casual toplessness was a bit of a shock), but wound up celebrating New Year's Eve at some casino/hotel in Fort Lauderdale because ... well, I still don't know why or how we wound up there.
--For whatever reason, the bar where we watched the ball drop decided to do a "practice New Year's" about 20 minutes before midnight. Dan heard this and thought it was the real thing (which explained why he was way more into the trial run than everyone else), leading him to leave the bar so he could call the girl he was casually seeing at the time and wish her a happy New Year. She made fun of him and he missed all of the actual celebration.
--We wound up sharing a taxi van with two extremely inebriated U of L fans who had decided that getting a cheap room at the extremely shady hotel by the airport where we'd decided to stay was the right move. Someone in the van attempted to explain Card Chronicle to them and failed miserably.
--Dan and I wound up veering off from the rest of the group on New Year's Day because we wanted to attend the U of L FanFest event that no one else seemed particularly interested in. Highlights included a gigantic group of Cards fans cheering on West Virginia's comeback victory over Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl (Big East solidarity was a beautiful thing for a short, short period of time), Jim Jones' "We Fly High" playing about 750 times, and me being told I was "the first one" to throw a mini football through a small hole at one of the game booths. I received no prize.
--After a night out with Cardinal fans, we made a deal with one of the restaurants on Ocean Drive that had a room available above their place of business. I was against it, but whatever, it was finally almost game day and I would have agreed to just about anything. We watched Boise State's Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma in amazement and then drew straws (literally) for who got to sleep in the one bed. Dan wound up trying to make a night on the hard tile work. He ended up pacing South Beach at 5 in the morning.
--Like the Cards, I'd never been to a BCS game before, so I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting. A dreary day at a gigantic stadium with endless parking lots that all seemed a quarter full wasn't it, though. It was a bit of a surreal experience. We wore ponchos, we talked to Chris Redman, we scored four free last second tickets (the ones we bought off Ebay wound up being shipped to Dallas ... long story), and everyone on both sides was extremely friendly. The Wake Forest fans certainly dressed the part, wearing mostly polos tucked into khakis. Three of the people I was with weren't wearing shirts. Occasionally this led to some hurled insults about class and academic status, but that was about as nasty as things got. We booed the Wake Forest bus as it arrived, cheered the Cardinal bus when it did the same, and then headed into the stadium.
The 2013 Sugar Bowl is widely regarded as the biggest win in Louisville football history because of the opponent. That Cardinal team, which nearly ended its regular season on a three-game losing streak, would never have been able to pull off a feat of that magnitude had the giant in the equation been anything less than a third-ranked perennial powerhouse from the SEC. Run into a big-time college football fan at any major Southern airport and they might not be able to tell you exactly what game it was, but they all remember that your favorite team beat Florida.
There was more balance in Louisville's 1991 Fiesta Bowl win. It was U of L's first modern taste of a marquee New Year's Day bowl, and they were playing Alabama. Sure, it was a Crimson Tide team that was 7-4 and only accepted a bid to the game after multiple other teams had passed, but that didn't make them any less Alabama.
It's not the most eloquent statement in the world, but the 2007 Orange Bowl was always just about the Orange Bowl. Weeks earlier, Louisville fans had watched in horror as Wake Forest kicked three field goals to beat Georgia Tech 9-6 in the ACC championship game. Cardinal fans knew that the Demon Deacons were likely to be their BCS partners, an opponent that wouldn't provide them with either the challenge or the potential boost in national perception that they so desperately desired.
U of L fans making the trip to Miami didn't go down there to watch the Cardinals duke it out in a potential thriller against the ACC champion, they went down there to watch them win the Orange Bowl. Almost eight years later, I think we can all admit that this was our mindset; we expected to win, and we expected that win to come pretty easily. It felt a lot like the 2013 Final Four tilt against Wichita State, except there wasn't another game to look forward to afterward.
The other factor at play was that Cardinal fans were still reeling from having their best shot ever at a national championship ripped away a few weeks prior in New Jersey. It seemed wrong for a fan base that had never been to the BCS before to have this collective feeling about the Orange Bowl that sort of resembled resignation, but there was definitely an air of that in the weeks leading up to the game. There likely would have been a lot more had U of L fans not been forced to face their BCS mortality head on when Rutgers nearly defeated West Virginia to send the Cards to the Texas Bowl.
Even with all the talk of wanting to play someone else and all the predictions of a Louisville blowout, watching your team -- the same one that had spent the bulk of your existence as a national afterthought -- run onto the field in the Orange Bowl on a night where no other games were being played was still a pretty special experience.
Dan was really excited to see Peanut Whitehead ... and I didn't know which way to hold my flip cam.
As expected, the event wound up being more about the significance of U of L's win than it did the team the Cardinals beat or the excitement of the game that was played. That's primarily because the game itself wasn't particularly exciting.
Louisville dropped passes, struggled to establish their ground game, and fumbled the ball twice. Wake Forest did them one better. Eventual MVP Brian Brohm tossed for 311 yards and led two fourth quarter touchdown drives that allowed his team to slug out a 24-13 win. When the dust had settled, the Cards had really only played one solid quarter, and had fallen well short of the 39 points per game average they had posted under Bobby Petrino up until that point.
Time has only made the game itself even more strange.
Bobby Petrino touted Louisville football and the Big East in his postgame speech, and then bolted for Atlanta and the NFL just days later. At the time, it was the least-watched BCS game in history, which would explain why most of the country seems to have forgotten that it took place. The game's signature play wound up being a double pass from perennial underachiever Pat Carter to eventual Georgia Tech transfer Anthony Allen, certainly not two of the more recognizable names associated with U of L football. Highlight videos and detailed summaries of the game are more difficult to find than the smallest detail from any one of Louisville's NCAA Tournament runs in the '90s.
Still, there was no question then or now that U of L's Jan. 2 triumph was always going to be one of the biggest wins in the history of U of L football. A program that was on the verge of being forced out of Conference USA a little over a decade prior had just beaten the ACC champion in the Orange Bowl to cap off its second one-loss season in three years. This was monumental, and that's where my mind should have been as my friends and I made our victory march back to the Sun Life Stadium parking lot. It wasn't.
"That was great. But, man, think about next year."
It wasn't just the foolish mistake of an appropriately foolish 22-year-old. "Wait until next year" has become the de facto battle cry of the 21st century sports fan. It's the only phrase tossed around more liberally than "put in (enter second string player)" and "fire (enter head coach)." The mythical perfect season gets talked about after bad losses, after good wins that should have been great wins; I've even heard multiple people spouting off about "next year" just a handful of minutes after watching their team win the national championship.
Of course, "next year" never came for Louisville football. The Cardinals began the 2007 season ranked No. 10, easily the highest preseason ranking in the history of the program. They finished the year 6-6 and were left out of the postseason. U of L wouldn't win more than seven games again until 2012, when Teddy Bridgewater and company made it back to the BCS to stun Florida and the rest of the college football world.
If I'd had the slightest idea of the years that lay ahead, I would have enjoyed that evening in Miami about 50 times more than I did. Big moments never mean as much if you don't both recognize them when they're occurring and understand that there's no guarantee they'll ever come again.
A 22-year-old kid too eager to face the world with no plan, and a football program so obsessed with its future that it never really took the time to embrace a seminal moment. We were even more meant for each other than usual in early 2007.
This Saturday at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, the Demon Deacons and Cardinals will square off for the first time since that night in Miami almost eight years ago.
Wake Forest is, by pretty much everyone's account, the worst of the 14 teams in the ACC. They would also seem to be the weakest - or, if we're feeling generous, the least exciting - of the eight squads remaining on Louisville's 2014 slate. That being the case, it's been predictable to hear some folks talking this week about "getting the game over with" and "getting into the meat of the schedule." Past experience should tell us that this line of thinking is a mistake.
One third of U of L's season is in the books, and the case can be made that the Cardinals still have more questions than answers. Is this the best the offensive line can do? Is Will Gardner or Reggie Bonnafon going to be the guy at quarterback for the second half of the season? How much is a healthy Michael Dyer or DeVante Parker going to help this offense? Can these guys really play with Florida State, Clemson or Notre Dame?
Saturday's game isn't going to provide complete answers to all of those questions, but it's going to give us a much better idea of what those answers might be than we had before kickoff. That's exciting. Crisp September weather for afternoon tailgating and an ACC opponent heading into Papa John's Cardinal Stadium for a league game? Also exciting.
It takes more of an effort to enjoy the "story-moving" episodes of a television show than it does the season finale, but ultimately, a good show will reward that effort. Louisville's game against Wake Forest on Saturday will go a long way towards determining how the rest of the season is going to play out. Enjoy it.
It's always later than you think.