Kragthorpe’s Stumbles Cripple Louisville Football

From the moment he stubbed his toe on the way to the podium at his introductory news conference as the new football coach, things have not gone well for Steve Kragthorpe at the University of Louisville. That little stumble would become emblematic of a major two-year crippling of the football program.

His assumption of the reigns of UofL football was ill-timed at best, the first week in January, forced to select a staff, retain some key players, and get in the thick of the recruiting battles quickly before the February deadline. Kragthorpe also encountered significant pressure from the administration and fans to retain some people he had never worked with as a coach.

On top of that, he was replacing the most successful football coach in the university’s history, still celebrating the Orange Bowl appearance and its first BCS win while finishing eighth in the national polls. While his predecessor was not well liked, Bobby Petrino was a winner on the football field and could do no wrong as far as fans were concerned. Kragthorpe took the position in spite of the conventional wisdom of never following a legend.

The observer recalls standing in a long line at the Neutral Zone store in Middletown, waiting for the coach to sign a football for the grandson. We waited, waited and waited some more. The coach would be over an hour late before getting there. Word was that he was lost, trying to find the place.

No apologies, at least none that made it back to our place in the long line. The ball coach sits down at a table, methodically signing the memorabilia handed to him. A minimum of effort to get to know the fans, the coach rarely acknowledging the person standing in front of him, little time or no interest in fan introductions.

Then came a long string of mysterious dismissals of players from the team with minimal communications from the coach. Lackluster performances against the equivalent of Division II teams. Loss after loss, including losses to mediocre Division I football teams. Players missing games because of suspensions or injuries, again with little explanation.  As his tenure progressed, there were few signs of improvement on the offensive side of the ball. Too many recruits favoring other venues. The outlook for next season appearing even more grim.

The coach made minimal effort to win fans over to his side, expecting them to somehow understand the obstacles he was up against. The worn out clichés wore thin quickly. He was unwilling or incapable of relating to the fans’ frustrations, a martyr wanting to bear the burden while hoping he would have plenty of time to turn the program around.

These handicaps put his friend and boss Tom Jurich in the unenviable position of attempting to defend Kragthorpe. Certainly a football coach should have more than two seasons to build a program, but not when all available evidence indicates that the program is going in reverse.

Steve Kragthorpe may be a fine person. We have no reason to believe otherwise. But we may never know for sure, because Kragthorpe has been unable to relate to Louisvillians  and their expectations for the University of Louisville and U of L football. These shortcomings may have been his biggest stumbles.

Football Pokes And Ponderings

We’ll get around to basketball, and what may be a milestone season. It’s not that time quite yet. Too much unfinished business with University of Louisville football.

— Where is Trent Guy these days, the most potent offensive threat behind Victor Anderson? Apparently he cracked a rib during the Pittsburgh loss. But that information has been buried beneath the discussion over the coaching situation.

— Why was Matt Simms or any other backup not given any snaps while Hunter Cantwell was struggling with his accuracy during the West Virginia game? Watching Cantwell keep being sent back into the game in the fourth quarter was agonizing, knowing nothing productive was going to occur. But still there was Matt Simms clapping, jumping up and down on the sideline, wanting something to happen.

See Sonja’s report on
Lady Cards’ win over Xavier

— Much has been made of Tom Jurich’s comments about fans during the hubbub over the coaching issue. Tom may be a genius but he is lacking in some basic public relations skills. While teams are winning, the Vice President of Athletics can say just about anything he wants and get away with it. But when the losses are piling up, it’s a different story. Yeah, there are more than a few dense ones in the fan base. But you don’t call them out and expect them to admit it. Nor do you risk offending more responsible fans who may think you’re including them with the bad apples.

— The first sign that a fan may be missing a few marbles is when he or she fails to recognize all that Tom Jurich has made possible at the University of Louisville over the past decade. But when a fan suggests that Jurich leave because of the football situation, that should mark the end of the conversation. Not about to start listing all of the achievements UofL has made with Jurich at the helm, far too many of them. Jurich is the person U of L needs to dig its way back out of the football crater.

— When huge segments of a fan base don’t show up because things are not going well or because it’s cold, raining or a game is played on a week night, the fan base has not quite arrived. Tom Jurich is the best chance of making that possible at the University of Louisville.

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Not Closure, But Open Season

Tom Jurich seems to be going out of his way to make sure the world knows that he stands behind football coach Steve Kragthorpe. The decisionmaker for University of Louisville athletics reinforced his support today for the third time in a week.

Funny, he needed a news conference to repeat what every UofL football fan already knew.

Tom Jurich
Tom Jurich

Makes you wonder what else is going on. It wouldn’t be the first time an athletic director has given a coach a vote of confidence and then axed him a few weeks later. But Jurich is not going fire a football coach after only two seasons for any reason other than unethical conduct. Doing so would make finding a successor much more difficult now than later.

While Jurich’s assumed purpose was to quell talk of a coaching change, he inadvertently or purposefully — only he knows for sure — may have reignited the speculation all over again. When asked if Kragthorpe would be returning, he replied: “Yes, Steve will be back next year … if he wants to be.”

That may be all the encouragement the Kragthorpe haters need to turn up the heat. My guess is that Kragthorpe has already decided, one way or the other.

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Construction on stadium expansion could conceivably begin as early as Monday. Jurich said only that construction would begin after the football season. This month? Next month? The guess here is the answer will come about the same time as the answer to the coaching question.

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.

Ugly Underbelly Discourages Fans

Not To Attend Louisville-Cincinnati Game

Disclaimer:  No one here is blaming the fan base for anything that has happened on the football field, not even close.

It is understandable that many University of Louisville football fans are upset and angry about the way the season is going. The outlook for the anything better than three more losses is bleak. This dismal outlook is painful.

Deterred briefly by a surprising win over South Florida, numerous fans have resumed calling for Steve Kragthorpe’s removal after the two most recent losses. In fact, if some noisy malcontents had their way, Kragthorpe would be gone, jerked out of practice in front of the players, before the next game.

What’s mindboggling is that some irate fans are suggesting that Tom Jurich, vice president of athletics, is negligent. It didn’t take long for the underbelly of the fan base to reveal its ugly side, did it? Mind you that’s the Tom Jurich, the man behind changing the landscape on Floyd Street, getting U of L into the Big East Conference, and recognized by his peers as Athletic Director of the Year in 2006.

Tom Jurich is a big boy. He can take care of himself, and we trust him with the athletic program, even though he may have created a monster in terms of fan expectations.

What’s unacceptable, however, is that a few of the more vociferous people are discouraging other U of L fans from attending this Friday’s game with Cincinnati. They want to send a “message” to the athletic administration, as if Jurich were not acutely aware of the challenges.

People who stay home will send a message all right, demonstrating to potential recruits and current players that U of L is just another school with more than its share of fair weather followers – unlike those of a traditional power such as University of Tennessee where 90,000 fans will show up at the next home game despite the Vols’ 3-7 won-lost record and being an underdog to Kentucky, of all teams.

People who fail to show up aren’t hurting the university financially because, with eight home games, U of L has already sold more tickets this year than any season in the school’s history. They do, however, harm the reputation of the fan base and the program they claim to love.

Show up.