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Louisville athletics heads into 2021-22 at a crossroads

One of the more significant eight month periods in program history lies directly in front of us.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Virginia at Louisville Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A little over nine years ago, I wrote this piece in preparation for what would wind up being known as “The Year of the Cardinal.”

Here’s a snippet:

With the accuracy of the previous four paragraphs taken into account, the fact remains that it is significantly more likely that the Cardinal football team won’t win the Big East and the basketball team will fall short of the national title than it is that both those teams will achieve those stated goals.

But it’s possible. It’s more possible right now that it has been in any August prior to this one.

Isn’t that cool to think about?

This will be the sixth season of Louisville athletics that Card Chronicle has been around to oversee, and there’s no doubt that this is easily the most anticipated of that sextet. And right now it’s all lying in front of us. Anything is possible in this moment, and as tempting as it is to daydream about tailgating on Sept. 2 or spending New Year’s in Miami, this moment demands some appreciation.

The words hit me now like a frustrated old man stumbling into a forgotten box of home movies filled to the brim with sights and sounds of better days. The voice is the same, but it also isn’t.

This is the time of the year that has always been for dreaming. At least twelve football games sit directly in front of us. The men’s and women’s basketball teams have been delivering hints all summer that an exciting winter could lie just around the bend. The baseball program is in the beginning stages of its annual trek towards Omaha.

It’s the same recipe we’re used to seeing in late August or early September, but it’s time to address the fact that the thought of the finished product — or the process needed to get there — simply isn’t being surrounded with the same level of enthusiasm or anticipation that we’d all grown accustomed to before ... you know ... everything.

In early 2018, a new group of leaders arrived at the University of Louisville promising “sweeping change” within the athletic program.

Fast forward three and-a-half years, and the only “sweeping changes” the athletic program has seen have come in areas the fan base would have just as soon seen left alone. Winning big and the positive headlines that go hand-in-hand with that glory have slowly faded away from the main screen. In their place? Easily avoidable reboots from old films Cardinal fans were already desperate to repress.

In the last eight months alone, we’ve seen ...

—An extortion case involving the head coach of the men’s basketball program. One where extorted and the program he represents seem to have been damaged and embarrassed more than the extorter.

—The head football coach getting caught sneaking around and flirting with an SEC program during those post-regular season December weeks that are always going to give Louisville fans sports PTSD.

—An apparent schism between the president’s office and the athletic department, one which threatens the likelihood of achieving all those positive things that were originally promised. `

It’s past collapsing on present over and over again, and always in the most embarrassing possible way.

The worst part is that there’s no guarantee any of it is going to stop any time soon.

None of this is to say that I’m not eagerly anticipating the 2021-22 U of L athletics season. I’m a lifer; a contract I unknowingly signed at a time before I could fully form a conscious memory. I wouldn’t have it any other way. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a lifer too.

But if you’re reading this, you’ve also almost certainly heard some of the same things that I have from friends or family members whose loyalties might not be quite as steadfast.

This isn’t fun anymore

It’s just not worth it

I wish I cared the way I used to

Perhaps most concerning of all is the thought of the younger Cardinal supporters in the middle of those especially impressionable formative sports fan years. It’s the group whose fading memories of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva have been almost entirely replaced by over a half decade of scandal and embarrassment.

A kid who had just started 6th grade in the fall of 2015 when the Katina Powell story first broke is currently in the early weeks of their senior year of high school. They’ve lived through a host of high-profile firings, more scandals on the ESPN ticker than they can accurately recall, four Marches with no madness, zero 10-win football seasons, a single win in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and they’ve spent four years and counting waiting to see what the punishment from the FBI scandal winds up being.

This is how you lose a large chunk of the next generation of Cardinal fans.

All of the above leads me to this statement: The 2021-22 U of L athletics season is as consequential an 8-month period for the program as I can remember.

None of us are expecting the Louisville football team to be a realistic threat to crash the College Football Playoff or the men’s basketball team to emerge in the early days of 2022 as a top contender to cut down the nets in New Orleans. To be honest, I don’t think any of us have any idea what to expect.

What we know is that all of us need a jolt. And not a jolt like the one we received out of the blue last Friday, or the one that hit us on Selection Sunday, or on that December Friday when the “Satterfield to South Carolina?” stories began to leak. The jolt has to come from the field or the court. It has to be seismic, and it has to be positive.

This fan base doesn’t need the highest level of success right this moment. What it needs is tangible evidence that the highest level of success will eventually return.

I think there’s still hope for that.

Take these two polls, for instance:

There is a fringe within our fan base that would fire both Chris Mack and Scott Satterfield today. There is a smaller fringe that believes Mack, like Rick Pitino and Denny Crum before him, is a future Hall of Famer, and that Satterfield represents all the best qualities of Charlie Strong and Bobby Petrino.

The much, much larger segment of this fan base is willing to admit that it just does not have enough evidence to know one way or the other right now. That group will be dramatically smaller eight months from now.

This athletic season will shape our collective narrative. That’s how significant it is.

If the men’s basketball team overachieves to the tune of being a legitimate top 20 team that plays its way into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, then Chris Mack is who we wanted him to be in the fall of 2018, and the “struggles” of his first three seasons are easily explained away. For God’s sake, the man’s best team didn’t even get the chance to play a single postseason game. If the Cards once again miss out on the Big Dance, then “the job is too big for him” talk will drown out any remaining defenders. The program will head into a period that will almost certainly include some from of NCAA punishment, and optimism that Mack and company will be able to hit the ground running whenever that omnipresent dark cloud finally starts moving away will not be high. This is the disaster dynamic.

If the football team wins eight or more games, then 2020 was simply a fluke fueled by Covid and inexplicable turnovers. The right man has the head coaching job, and the days of expecting to be nationally ranked on virtually each and every fall Saturday will soon return. If it wins fewer than seven, then Scott Satterfield is a small-time coach who doesn’t fit the culture here and who won’t ever be able to bring Louisville back to being a consistent top tier team in the ACC.

The swing in either direction will be extreme, but at least we’ll have answers. Or at least we’ll believe we do.

This has all been a longwinded excursion to arrive at the simplest and most straightforward of conclusions.

There is only one solution to the plagues that continue to spread throughout U of L athletics, the ones that continue to push more and more Cardinal fans towards anger and apathy: Win .... win big.

The search for the most significant of answers begins on Monday night. My fingers are crossed.