Bill Olsen made football survival and growth his priority at UofL

Good to see Bill Olsen again at the recent Crawford Gym reunion for former University of Louisville basketball players. He was a former player himself and an assistant to Denny Crum, but his most lasting contribution may have been to the UofL football program.

Bill Olsen created foundation for Louisville football.
Bill Olsen created foundation for Louisville football.

Among the highlights during his tenure as Athletic Director from 1981 to 1997 was the hiring of Howard Schnellenberger, who would serve as head football coach for a decade and thrash Alabama in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl.

Olsen would also launch the effort to obtain an on-campus stadium for the football program, convincing local banker Malcolm Chancey to head the fundraising campaign. More than 4,000 fans pledged nearly $15 million for lifetime seating rights in the initial phase of the stadium fundraising effort in May of 1993.

These were followed by major gifts from Papa John’s, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, the Brown Foundation, Anheuser Busch, Bank One, Kiel Brothers Oil Inc./BP, and United Parcel Service. Significant contributions also came from McDonald’s, Pepsi Cola, Dr. Ben Reid, Kentucky Kingdom and the City of Louisville and Jefferson County. The only assistance from the state came in the form of a land swap for adjacent acreage.

His primary challenge upon accepting the post was just keeping football viable.  The basketball program was at its zenith, having captured national championships in 1980 and 1986. When he became AD, football tickets sold for $3 each. Attendance was about 15,000 per game.  His goal was to amp up the football program in a big way.

“The only games we ever made money were those against Western Kentucky, and we didn’t play them every year,” he says. “We were facing some significant challenges.”

Birth of Tailgating at UofL

He recalled that Tommy Carroll, former president of the University of Louisville Associates, conceived the idea of tailgating. A marketing committee was created by Charlie Herd, of the Chamber of Commerce. Among the members were Maury Buchart, then Vice President of Marketing at the Courier-Journal, Bob Goetz, also of the CJ, and Mike Brown, of Pepsi.

“The marketing committee suggested that we start promoting the tailgating concept, making them social events as well,” said Olsen. “Many other schools were tailgating but we had just never done it.”

The committee urged Chamber businesses to get involved. Among them was WHAS Radio. Wayne Perkey, Milton Metz and other station celebrities manned a tailgating area, selling sandwiches and cold drinks for 84 cents. U of L also encouraged the cheerleaders and Lady Birds to mingle with crowd and got the band to march through the crowd around old Fairgrounds Stadium. Many groups of friends and families quickly gravitated to the idea of food fests, and it ballooned from there.

“We also put up billboards,” he says. “The images on the first billboard consisted only of a leaf falling on a football. The theme was ‘Six Super Saturdays.’ We stayed away from the inferior product on the field and focused on the atmosphere surrounding the game.”

“Tailgating just continued to grow. People loved it. Some of them enjoyed it so much they never went into the stadium for the game. We became one of the best tailgating schools in the country.”

Football attendance had grown to between 28,000 – 30,000 in the years when Olsen retired in 1997, providing a foundation for even more phenomenal growth under Tom Jurich, his predecessor.

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Tommy Carroll, Sr.
Tommy Carroll, Sr.

Tommy Carroll, mentioned above, passed away this week at the age of 93. He was a member of the UofL Athletic Hall of Fame, having played football, baseball and track. He was also honored with the Hickman-Camp Award for his support and volunteerism.

Ron Cooper wowed Louisville search committee

Who?

The reaction of University of Louisville football fans was almost unanimous when Ron Cooper was announced in 1994 as the successor to Howard Schnellenberger who had left a few weeks earlier for the Oklahoma head job.

Ron who?

Cooper was coming from Eastern Michigan where he had managed only a 7-13 won-lost record in two seasons at Eastern Michigan and two seventh-place finishes in the Midwest Athletic Conference (MAC). His only claim to any success was that he had previously been a defensive assistant at Notre Dame.

Did you say Notre Dame?

The Irish connection impressed the search committee. But what impressed members the most was Cooper’s optimism. “He was one of the last candidates to be interviewed,” recalls Bill Olsen, former athletic director. “He came and in swept them off their feet with his outgoing personality and confidence.”

He coached at Notre Dame and he’s promising a winner. Wow. Wasn’t able to produce at Eastern Michigan but Louisville was a different animal, building a new football stadium. Not much to go on but Cooper would get the job.

Anyone with much experience with committees knows the smaller they are the better. With too many members, everybody’s in charge and nobody’s in charge. The search committee was unusually large, consisting of 23 people — gigantic by today’s standard at U of L where Tom Jurich makes the decisions.

“Coaching searches are difficult at best,” says Olsen. “The committee was so large it was a challenge to protect the identities of the candidates. Coaching searches are sensitive because people already have jobs. But every time  a name or two was mentioned, Russ Brown would have a story about it in the Courier-Journal the next day.”

Cooper could manage only a disappointing 13-20 won-lost record, culminating in a 1-10 season his last year. All the while promising future greatness before accepting an offer of $1 million to pursue other interests after three seasons.

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Among the other candidates pursued were Jim Tressel, recently ousted at Ohio State University, who was paying his dues at Youngstown State at the time. “Tressel never actually interviewed but we were interested in him,” said Olsen.

Another coach was Jim Caldwell, then at Wake Forest and now the head coach of the NFL Indianapolis Colts. “He told he wished he had know about the Louisville job before taking the Wake Forest position,” said Olsen. Another person of interest was Jim Donnan, then at Marshall, who later coached at Georgia and a recent ESPN analyst.