Long before he was donning oversized headgear on autumn Saturday mornings for ESPN’s “College GameDay” show, Lee Corso was showcasing the full extent of his outrageous personality while serving as Louisville’s head football coach from 1969-72.
Corso led the Cardinals to an impressive 28-11-3 mark during his tenure, won at least a share of two Missouri Valley Conference championships, and took U of L to the 1970 Pasadena Bowl. Still, it’s the madcap stories that are the most enduring part of Lee Corso’s legacy at Louisville.
Everyone who remembers the era starts at the same place.
Fan interest in Louisville football was low when Corso took over. The team hadn’t won more than seven games in a season since 1957, and the basketball program was on its way to becoming a national power. Corso was willing to try anything in order to drum up some added intrigue, so when a friend informed him that the circus was coming to town and suggested that he should ride one of the elephants that was about to arrive at the Fairgrounds as a way to sell some extra season tickets, he didn’t bat an eye.
“I thought it was gonna be a little one,” Corse recalled in a 1973 Chicago Tribune article. “But this elephant was so big I had to lay down so we could get under viaducts. I was supposed to wave to the crowd, but have you ever been on an elephant? They walk blump-blump, like a tossing ship, tilting forward. And those sharp hairs get right through your clothes. I was so scared I’ve got scars on my fingers because I held onto the strap so hard. There I was, for 45 minutes, bleeding all over the elephant. Kids would come by and honk the horns on their bicycles and I would yell at them to stop it.
“When we finished, I’d found I’d pulled both my groin muscles because I’d been holding on so hard with my legs. They had to help me walk to the car. I was sweaty and I stunk and my pants were ruined — and people still think I planned it.”
So was it worth it?
“No,” Corso answered at the annual Governor’s Cup Luncheon in Louisville in 2015. “I got off the elephant and the damn thing spit at me. Then a guy walks over to me and says, ‘congratulations coach, you’ve sold four tickets.”
The madness didn’t stop once the actual season started.
The Cardinals were heavily out-manned in a November road game at rival Memphis State, a fact which mattered little to Tigers head coach Spook Murphy. Despite having the game well in hand, Murphy opted to keep his first team offense on the field and run up the score. Corso, who had inserted his reserves when it became apparent that U of L had no shot at victory, began waving a white towel at the opposing coach from his sideline in order to inform them that their rivals had surrendered.
When Memphis State punched in a final touchdown to make the score 69-19, Corso launched the towel onto the actual playing field and shouted “SURRENDER!” at the top of his lungs. When an official informed him that the act was going to cost his team 15 yards, Corso was indignant.
“Sir, the score is 69-19,” he said. “How is 15 yards going to hurt us?”
A week after the beatdown in The Bluff City, Corso needed a way to revitalize his team heading into their regular season finale game against Tulsa. With the game set to be played on Thanksgiving, Corso opted to purchase a turkey, paint a bright red “L” on it, and make it the team’s unofficial mascot for the week. For the next four days, he brought the turkey to practice, had it sit in on team meetings, and become part of the team.
Corso’s original idea was to call Tulsa and ask them to purchase a turkey mascot of their own so that the two birds could meet at midfield for a confrontation before the coin toss. Tulsa declined.
Undeterred, Corso chose to lie to his team. He told them that he had made a bet with the Tulsa coaches, the terms of which included the Tulsa team being able to kill the Louisville mascot turkey if the Cardinals didn’t prevail. Somehow, the players bought it.
The turkey, being trotted out on a leash like a well-trained dog by the Louisville head coach himself, came off the U of L bus with the rest of the Cardinal team and accompanied them onto the field at Tulsa. The turkey also made its way to midfield with the Louisville’s designated team captains for the pregame coin toss. When a reminder of the new mascot’s fate was brought up during a potential game-winning drive by Tulsa in the final minute, the Louisville defense found the motivation it needed to secure one final stop and come away with a 35-29 season-ending victory.
Corso was carried off the field on the shoulders of the Louisville players. As was the turkey.
Louisville lost perhaps the most enigmatic figure in program history when Corso accepted the head coaching job at Indiana in 1973. The stories stayed in the Derby City, though, and they always will.