It is hard to believe, but when Louisville opens up the home slate for 2017 on Saturday against Clemson, it will begin the 20th season of Cardinal football at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Twenty. That seems crazy to a 31 year old who started attending UofL football games at (Old) Cardinal Stadium at just a few months old.
No, really. I was born in May of 1986 and was being taken to games in the ‘86 season. For others around my age and older, a week like this current one seemed unimaginable many years ago. Louisville as the center of the college football world? With the reigning Heisman trophy winner? What? Yet, here we are.
We have waited patiently. Let’s do this.
The program that Howard built
Louisville football started in 1912, but I am going to fast forward, a lot. Let’s go to 1985. Howard Schnellenberger had just won the National Championship with the Miami Hurricanes in 1983. He left there to coach a USFL team, but that team folded. Louisville had not had a winning season since 1978. But here was Schellenberger, returning home to where he grew up, in Louisville. The school would give tickets away to football games. They had considered dropping down to 1-AA. Howard was certainly not in Miami anymore.
At his opening press conference, Schellenberger delivered the famous line that will still draw cheers at PJCS when shown on the video board: “The University of Louisville is on a collision course with the national championship. The only variable is time.” National Championship? Pretty bold statement.
Check out a couple excerpts from a NY Times article in 1985, just three games into Schnellenberger’s first season with the Cards. Louisville was 1-2, their only win over 1-AA Western Kentucky.
Schnellenberger has done much to generate that enthusiasm for a program that has traditionally labored in obscurity behind Denny Crum's basketball teams. The coach's stern, pipe-smoking countenance appears on highway billboards exhorting Louisvillians to ''Be Part of It''; his gruff voice dominates the airwaves with radio call-shows and two televised coach's shows; he writes a newspaper question-and-answer column and has made innumerable public appearances - 100 of them in nearly as many days this past spring and summer.
Meanwhile, season ticket sales have soared from 13,400 in 1984 to more than 21,000 this season, and, despite the two losses, continued to rise this week before the home opener against Western Kentucky, a game the Cardinals won, 23-14, before 36,914, a Louisville record. Last night they were defeated, 49-27, by the University of Houston, before another encouraging crowd of 30,334.
''It could happen,'' he told people before his first season even began. ''But it won't if we don't dream about it, talk about it and make it happen. And if it does, this will be the collegiate football story of all time. It can't happen anywhere else. This is the only school that's starting from the right place, the bottom.''
I don’t mean to turn this into a full post about Howard Schnellenberger. It’s just important to realize where this program was, just 30 years ago. Some of the major programs around the country have been playing football as long, or longer, than UofL and they weren’t on the brink of dropping down to 1-AA. They have generations of traditions and winning football. This program is still young if you consider that it was basically built from the bottom by Howard in 1985.
After Howard spent 10 seasons at Louisville and built the program and a fanbase, he moved on. Enter Ron Cooper. Cooper went 7-4, 5-6, and 1-10 in his three seasons at UofL. In 1997, Louisville fans watched as we lost to teams like Tulane, East Carolina, Memphis, Southern Miss, and more. We endured these losses while being in a stadium that smelled like cows and horses. I am not sure what was worse that year. My, how times have changed. After going 1-10, Cooper was gone, as was much of the fan base that Howard built. But a new era was about to begin for Louisville football.
Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium
Luckily, this was all in the works already and didn’t get scrapped after the last couple of seasons. A new stadium that held 42,000 people. A new coach in John L. Smith. This couldn’t happen at a better time for a fanbase that was fading. John L. led the Cards to a 7-5 record and a bowl appearance, which hadn’t happened since 1993. It would be the first of nine straight bowl appearances for UofL. John L. Smith got the program back on an uphill swing before leaving for Michigan State. Enter Bobby Petrino…
Petrino spent four years at Louisville, compiling a record of 41-9 and having teams that scored a lot of points. This exciting brand of football was perfect for this still young fanbase. UofL also transitioned into the Big East during this time. The stadium that could fit 42,000 was meeting that capacity, especially during the 2006 season when the Cards, ranked 5th in the country, hosted #3 West Virginia on a Thursday night in November. Just the fact that Louisville had made their way into the top 5 in college football was an amazing feat. It wouldn’t last long, as we all know. But nonetheless, Louisville football had reached new heights. The 2006 season was capped off with a BCS win, another milestone. That collision course that Howard mentioned actually started to seem realistic. Fans were genuinely excited for UofL football.
Look, I don’t want to say too much here. The guy seemed like a nice dude. And he had bad health problems. So I don’t want to beat him down too much. But Louisville fans were more excited about Louisville football than ever before. And in just three years, it was back to the bottom. 6-6, 5-7, 4-8. It just kept getting worse. There were some games in that final season where the attendance was under 30,000. It was like Louisville was in pre-Howard days again. How did this long climb up the mountain suddenly end with a fall so fast? John L. and Bobby spent eight years taking us on a climb up the ladder, getting us out of the hole that was dug in 1997. And now, in just three years, we were back to that? Oh, and not to mention, there was a stadium expansion coming. We couldn’t fill the 42,000, but PJCS was getting bigger. The next hire had to be the right one. It was.
You were cut that way, but it’s cool
Papa John’s Cardinal stadium opened the 2010 season with a brand new capacity, 55,000. Louisville football now had a stadium that could hold over 50,000 people. The times, they were a changin.
Charlie Strong comes in and fools the hell out of me. I am thinking that he is this generation’s Howard for UofL fans. He was going to stick around. He was going to build us back up and stay for 15-20 years. This was the guy. He had me convinced...whoops.
He always claimed to not be “cut that way” when it came to leaving for another job. Turns out, he was. But you know what? Chuck Strong got us back to a bowl game in his first season. I remember being in St. Petersburg after the win and celebrating so hard that we just went 7-6 that season. It meant THAT much to get this back on track. His next three seasons would include us getting Teddy Bridgewater and dominating Florida in the Sugar Bowl, so I can’t hate on him. He also opened that pipeline to Florida back up. Having football be relevant against was a major reason why the ACC took us over Cincinnati and UConn. Oh, and thank you Big XII for taking West Virginia. We really do appreciate that.
Bobby 2.0, Heisman, Gameday
Here we are. Louisville has gone from independent, to Conference USA, to the Big East, to a brief stop in the AAC, and finally landed in the ACC. We almost gave up Division 1 football in the ‘80s. We got beat by teams like Tulane and East Carolina. We played football in a multi-purpose stadium with astroturf, bleachers, and next to pastures and stables. Tickets were given away just to get fans to go. This week, people are selling tickets for $200 a piece. It’s insane.
Now we are on the verge of another stadium expansion that will take capacity to somewhere around 65,000. Lamar Jackson won the Heisman trophy last year and could win another one this year. The defending National Champions are coming into our stadium this Saturday night. ESPN’s biggest show, College Gameday, will be on our campus for the second year in a row. All eyes in the college football world will be on our city, on our team, on our stadium.
We may still be a young fanbase when you compare us to the bigger names. Who cares? We have a DJ. We have different uniforms nearly every game. We aren’t traditional. We are newer. It works for us.
We are here. We have waited. We have climbed the mountain, fallen all the way down, climbed again, fallen again, and have now climbed for the last time. No more falling. We are here to stay.
Enjoy Saturday. Enjoy it like no other. We think and we hope it can get better than this. But that is not guaranteed. This may be the best that it gets. Who knows? It’s pretty awesome though. Have a blast on Saturday. Get out there early, soak it all in. Take in the environment. Walk around to different tailgates. Come over to Old Cardinal Stadium, where it all started. Check out the Red Rage Tailgate (Lot H). Start CARDS chants on the walk down central avenue over to PJCS. Get in your seats. Be loud. We have been patient. Now it’s our time.