One Man’s Opinion:

How A Good Team Became A Bad Team

A lot of opinions, many thoughtful, others of the knee-jerk variety, have been expressed about the descent of University of Louisville football. Here’s another view from a former soldier who became a Card fan while stationed at Fort Knox. He holds two degrees from U of L. He’s also is the son of a bookmaker, so it’s safe to say he probably knows a little bit about football. His view is worth considering as the debate continues. Card Game welcomes your views.

By Stan Scott
Guest Columnist

With this season in apparent shambles after three consecutive losses, even those of us who have pleaded with naysayers to give Steve Kragthorpe the time and space to build his program have begun to worry. The man’s record clearly shows that he can successfully construct a winning football program. Why can’t he win in Louisville?

Many would respond by citing Kragthorpe’s incompetence. They point out that Kragthorpe took over an Orange Bowl team that narrowly missed playing for the national championship, and turned it into an average team. True enough. But fans should ask just how much control Kragthorpe actually had over the team. I believe that the administration and fans did not allow Coach K to make the program over and create his own culture. Simply put, this is not yet Steve Kragthorpe’s team.

Football coaches assemble subordinate staffs that share their philosophies for teaching, mentoring, leadership, training, and the football system itself. When Kragthorpe came to Louisville, he was largely stuck with the coaching staff Bobby Petrino had assembled. Their 2006 success and the Brohm family history in Louisville meant that Kragthorpe could not replace the core of the coaching staff he inherited.

Tom Jurich could have promoted someone already on staff, and may even have considered an inside hire of a coach who would command support among coaches and players who preferred to keep things in the family. Bluntly said, promoting Jeff Brohm to head coach probably had strong support among both coaches and players. But Kragthorpe brought in his own man to share management of the offense, and didn’t even make Brohm offensive coordinator until this year.

To make matters worse, Kragthorpe attempted to demote Mike Cassity, who had put together top 40 defenses at Louisville since 2004, by bringing Keith Patterson with him from Tulsa and making the two “co-defensive coordinators.” Players loyal to Cassity probably resented this, while others welcomed the change. Patterson returned to Tulsa for “personal reasons” before the season began, but the damage had already been done. Lingering dissension probably explains a lot of Louisville’s poor defensive performance last year.

Simply put, the Louisville Cardinals in 2007 had two offensive coordinators and a divided team on defense after someone had rejected the idea of changing the defensive coaching staff. The new head coach had tried to bring in his own system, but could not get the old one out the door.

Divided loyalty does not an effective team make — the various components of each unit never formed a cohesive unit. Some players, moreover, simply resisted the changes in culture and philosophy Kragthorpe brought, or just lost interest with Petrino’s departure. At any rate, the staff and players lost their commitment to a collective goal.

Kragthorpe and the staff have taken steps to move forward this year, most importantly by hiring Ron English and promoting Brohm. Perhaps, behind the scenes, he has also suggested that after a successful run he might move on to another job and nominate Brohm as his heir apparent.

At least something has already worked: the players like him and want to make him successful. But the past still limits Kragthorpe’s freedom — he had little choice but to play Hunter Cantwell, for example, because the young man had paid his dues and because Matt Simms, Tyler Wolfe, Zack Stoudt all needed more development.

With the moderator’s consent, I hope to explore this and other issues in future posts. For now, let me just say that I think Steve Kragthorpe can build a powerful football program at Louisville — as soon as we let him build a team.

Lack of Creativity Succumbs 28-20

If there is doubt about what Bobby Petrino left in terms of talent and problems, there is little doubt that he left a good nucleus of football fanatics. That contribution alone outweighs much of the negativity surrounding his legacy. Somewhere between 35,000 and 38,000 UofL fans on hand, looking for something positive during the rebuilding phase. Nice showing considering the circumstances.

— Card fans saw a living, breathing bandwagon in the visitors’ section where there were actually 2,000 – 3,000 Bearcat fans. More than have traveled to Louisville combined in all the years this observer has been following UofL football, and that’s a lot of years. More Bearcat fans at Papa John’s last night than have been at Nippert Stadium for many UofL-UC games in the past.

— Ron English is the UofL coach who inspires confidence in fans that he knows what he is doing. Can’t say too often how much the defense has improved since last season and since the beginning of this season. Most impressive.

— For almost four quarters, a University of Louisville football team teased its fans with the prospect of a win over a top 25 team. Probably would have accomplished it with with less predictable play calling. Calling a draw play for Brock Bolen on third down and 23 early in the fourth quarter is not going to get it done. How many times has Bolen been stopped with with only a yard to go?

— Cincinnati knew exactly what the UofL offense was going to do on their last fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter, lining up two deep right over the center for the inevitable quarterback sneak. No surprise, no gain. Insulting to the Bearcat defense. Insulting to Card fans. Embarrassing for Eric Woods and Hunter Cantwell.

— When the typical fan knows exactly what plays the coaches are going to run in crucial situations, you know a well-coached opponent is going to take advantage. The lack of any consistency in the running and passing games has allowed defenses to focus on a below average quarterback, pinch the ends, and force Cantwell into desperation hell.

— Special teams are not special. When Trent Guy lines up for a kickoff return, you have reason to be excited. But he’s not lining up. Got injured again somewhere on a mysterious play in which nobody saw him get injured. The Brock Bolen phenomenon, mysteriously disappearing in the Pittsburgh game. Wouldn’t be near as frustrating if you saw the actual injury. Where’s Brock. Oh, he’s injured again. Where’s Trent? He must have an injury. Where’s Victor? Never mind.

— UofL fans have been blessed with good passing teams over the last couple of decades. Always a bright spot even when the Cards were considered fodder for good or mediocre opposition. That tradition has been relegated to the scrap heap this season. The odds of restoring any semblance of that aspect of the game are not good.

— With their post-game comments, the UofL coaches and players have indicated that they are experts on why they are not winning football games. Real credibility, however, comes in showing that you actually know what it takes to win.

Step Up Time For Embattled Cards And Fans

Pretty nice outside as of this writing but as we all know, the bad stuff will be upon us for the 8 p.m. kickoff for the University of Louisville vs. Cincinnati game. A constant downpour will bring back memories of 2004 when Eric Shelton dashed 80-plus yards to score on the first play from scrimmage en route to a 70-7 route for the Cards.

No doubt most fans are hopeful that the law of what goes around comes around doesn’t come around too quickly. To the opposite extreme are noisy malcontents who would unashamedly use a drubbing as further reason to send Steve Kragthorpe packing.

Tom Heiser, on his Courier-Journal blog, goes to great lengths to explain what must happen to keep another embarrassment from occurring. The one thing he fails to mention is the home field venue, which is always important for a young team — and was underscored by the dismal performances at Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

*    *   *

On their radio show this morning, hosts John L. Smith and Drew Diener were encouraging the fans to think positive. A recurring theme among callers was the dramatic improvement on the defensive side of the ball. The defensive backfield quartet of Johnny Patrick, Bobby Buchanan, Latarrius Thomas, and Woodney Turenne has played especially well at home. Not very good anywhere else. What’s certain about this game is that they will have one opportunity after another to redeem themselves in what should be a more friendly environment.

*    *   *

If Hunter Cantwell is to have the slightest chance at a sniff in the NFL, he has to demonstrate more than a strong arm in this encounter. He has to come ready to play smart and unconfused on the first down, not taking most of the first half to get comfortable. Cantwell no longer lacks experience. He has shown momentary signs of what he could become but has fumbled more and tossed more interceptions than any UofL quarterback in longtime memory. That doesn’t come naturally for a gifted athlete. Sometimes you just have to be yourself. Whoever that is will become abundantly clear in this game.

*    *   *

A final word to fans considering staying home in silent protest over the coaching issue: Don’t. Whoever told you this was going to be easy was lying to you. Football, like life, is full of inevitable obstacles.  Overcoming them part of the journey. Get knocked down, get back up. Giving up is worse than losing.

Jurich Standing Firm On Football

Even the most adamant critic of University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich would have to admit that the man stands behind his words in the face of growing criticism that would have lesser people running for cover.

Jurich confirmed in an interview with Big East blogger Brian Bennett Wednesday that the football program is in a rebuilding mode, seemingly putting to rest any speculation that he will relieve football coach Steve Kragthorpe of his duties anytime soon:

“My expectations were not high this year because I knew the reality,” Jurich said on Wednesday. “One thing I didn’t want to do to the fans was lie to them.

“When I said we’d spend the next two years rebuilding, there was a lot of flack that came with it. Nobody wants to hear that. [But] it’s a long haul and I knew that and I buckled up for it.

“It’s hard for some people to hear that when one year you’re going to the Orange Bowl and now you’re not. Our fans are so new at this, they thought we’d be going to the Orange Bowl every week, but it’s not like that.”

The last sentence is sure to severely irritate those who were already beside themselves in demanding that Jurich fire Kragthorpe for what they consider rank incompetence. They see a team going backwards, not rebuilding. Their ranks include many who supported the team for years, including at least one couple who had never missed a home game in 42 years and traveled to many road games.

Jurich anticipated the ire that comes with rebuilding, saying before the season that he just wanted to get through the next two seasons. He is not surprised or shocked by the reactions. And no one can say Jurich didn’t warn them.

This observer believes the worst fear is that UofL football will descend into a bottomless pit from which it would difficult to ever recover. It is a concern based on few signs of progress over the past two seasons.

However, Tom Jurich believes the rebuilding process will be successful. Jurich has been around the block a few times, and he’s staking his reputation on it. But he faces an equal challenge in maintaining the loyalty of fans who disregard what he’s telling them.

Gloom, Despair and Pittsburgh 41-7

An embarrassing afternoon of football for the University of Louisville, reminiscent of the bad old days when Card fans harbored no illusions about ever becoming a nationally respected football program. This one is felt most by the pre-bandwagon jumpers who saw a program rise from the junk heap of the old Fairgrounds Stadium to the top 10 at Papa John’s. Was that even real?

You really have to feel sorry for all the fans who made the trip for the game, the most optimistic and faithful of all Card fans. They didn’t deserve what they got, undeniable confirmation that Louisville football has reached bottom, all over agan.

— Coach Steve Kragthorpe’s expression after Hunter Cantwell’s Christmas-gift lateral to Pittsburgh was one of total despair. Sorry, nowhere to hide, Coach. Life has bitch-slapped you in the face, and your ears are ringing. That dull roar you hear is the sound of the told-you-so’s warming up, ready to lambaste you and anyone who says anything positive about UofL football.

— Special teams play went south of the Equator: Automatic 10-yard penalties for UofL on every kickoff reception for those blocks in the back.  Cliffhangers on every punt reception. Fair catch? How about just catching the ball. Who coaches those special teams anyway?

— As for Hunter Cantwell, he should be history. The stats indicate that he had only one pass intercepted but at least six others were in serious jeopardy. Hunter is one of those guys who would never lose an intramural game, making you wonder why he never did well in college. He showed why today. If there’s a bad decision to be made, he makes it. Even when he does throw a good pass, the would-be receiver drops it half the time. Wasn’t meant to be. Time to move over, Hunter, hand the ball (don’t lateral it, please) to Matt Sims.

Sorry to disrupt the flow here but have to end on a positive note about Ron English‘s unit, which had perhaps one of the most impressive displays by a UofL defense in years. Holding LeSean McCoy, a back averaging 126 yards per game, to only 39 yards rushing was an impressive feat. That was one good thing to build on for the future, whatever that holds.

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