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Louisville football fans should embrace the present, but remember the past

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The memory of the car ride is still vivid, even if the destination and the reason we were all there in the first place have been forgotten.

It was the middle of October in 1997, I was 13-years-old, and the Louisville football program was smack in the middle of one of the lowest points of an existence that had already endured its fair share of valleys. My parents were driving me somewhere in our old blue Lincoln Town Car -- affectionately referred to as "The Big Blue Boat" -- and we were on Herr Lane right by my old stomping grounds, Wilder Elementary.

It was rare that we wouldn't be home watching the Cardinal football team play on television, which is why it surprises me that I can't place exactly where we were heading on this particular day. Regardless, the radio was tuned to the appropriate channel, and the car was quiet.

UofL's opponent on this day was Tulane, a team with a once-in-a-lifetime star quarterback in Shaun King that would complete a perfect 12-0 season a year later in 1998. The Green Wave were still explosive a year before that magical run, and on this afternoon they were effortlessly putting it on a Cardinal team that was 1-5 and had lost its last three games by a combined 75 points.

The exact score when it happened is another detail that escapes me, but it's safe to assume the game was already well in hand for the visitors in green. The only thing that matters is that Tulane scored a touchdown on Louisville, the team I had worshipped since before I could form a conscious memory, and I celebrated.

It remains the only time in my life that I have actively rooted against a Louisville Cardinal team.

My rationale at the time was self-serving and simple: I wanted Louisville to fire its current football coach, Ron Cooper, and bring in someone who would bring back the excitement and the winning ways that my friends, family and I had reveled in at the beginning of the decade. Maximum embarrassment against fellow Conference USA opponent seemed like an effective means to make this happen.

The brutal dream that was conceived during that car ride was ultimately realized months later when new UofL athletic director Tom Jurich fired Cooper after a dismal 1-10 season and hired John L. Smith. Smith would lead Louisville to the Motor City Bowl a year later, kicking off a program record nine consecutive bowl game appearances.

Outside of the now-unthinkable act of rooting against the home team, the thing that strikes me the most about this memory are the things that I wanted so desperately for the Louisville football program at that time. It wasn't much, certainly not compared to today, just the chance to have a winning season, an exciting game or two on the schedule every year, and maybe, if we were lucky enough, an occasional conference championship and subsequent trip to the Liberty Bowl in exotic Memphis, Tennessee.

Compare that archaic vision of success with where Louisville is right at this very moment: ranked No. 3 in the country, existing as the biggest story in the college football world, laying claim to the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, and about to play the highest-profile game of the 2016 season to date in primetime on ABC. My 13-year-old sports brain would have exploded faster than a hastily assembled boy band.

Twenty years from now, there will be multiple generations of UofL football fans who will know nothing but top 25 rankings, conference championships, and spotlight games like the one the Cardinals are going to play Saturday night at Clemson. They'll roll their eyes and laugh at old people like me when I tell stories of 1-10 seasons and blowout losses to Tulane in front of 22,000 fans.

Now that the program has moved past it, I feel fortunate that I got to experience at least a small portion of the struggle that longtime Louisville fans had been slogging through for decades before I was even born. The moment I begin to take Cardinal football success for granted or complain about some minute detail that really has no bearing on program wins or losses, all I have to do is remember that car ride.

A version of this column runs in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune