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 universityâ€™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.Â 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 clichÃ©s wore thin quickly. He was unwilling or incapable of relating to the fansâ€™ 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 LouisvilliansÂ and their expectations for the University of Louisville and U of L football. These shortcomings may have been his biggest stumbles.