A veteran of covering Louisville sports, and longtime U of L booster, Charlie Springer tells us about something FSU fans can relate to -- a fast rise to college football prominence -- and what it means to bail from the Big East and trade up to the ACC. He also tells how FSU played a key role in bringing the UofL into the league. Catch Charlie's views on his favorite team at Card Game.
University of Louisville fans, with aspirations for their football program, had circled Florida State on the 2002 football schedule, eagerly anticipating an opportunity playing the traditional power. UofL at the time was a member of Conference USA, looking for any opportunity for respect.
The mention of FSU football immediately invokes images of a warrior circling the field on horseback, thrusting a flaming spear into the turf, with tens of thousands of fans waving their arms and joining the war chant. This awesome spectacle, repeated every game at Doak Campbell Stadium, is the envy of football programs everywhere.
The opportunity would finally arrive, on a cold night with steady rain on a Thursday night in September. FSU was undefeated, ranked fourth in the nation. Louisville was 2-2 at the time but would win 26-20 in overtime in a nationally televised game (video lowlights here).
That would be the first and last time UofL fans would storm the field, pulling down the goal posts immediately following a game. Beating Florida State was the biggest win in the Louisville football history, providing tons of motivation for the program’s future. The season would not be one of the better ones for FSU with a 9-5 record or for UofL with a 7-6 mark, but that win over Florida State will remain one of the most memorable wins because it seemed so implausible.
When Tom Jurich (pictured left) arrived in 1997 as the new athletic director at Louisville, he had to endure a football team with a 1-10 record and a basketball team facing probation. A former NFL player, he came to the University from Colorado State University with an unprecedented commitment to football. He also inherited a program that would be moving into a new 42,000-seat Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium the following season.
Twelve years later, the stadium would be expanded to 55,000 seats. Average attendance would surge from 29,319 in 1997 to 50,648 in 2009. UofL would win 123 games again 66 losses, would have 32 players on National Football League rosters at one point and would claim two BCS bowl game victories, including Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl in 2007 and Florida in the 2013 Sugar Bowl in 2013.
Louisville would also complete construction of a 22,000-seat basketball arena, a new baseball stadium which is currently under expansion, and a sports complex including new facilities for softball, and field hockey. The baseball team would make the College World Series in 2007, the soccer would be a national championship finalist, as would the women’s basketball team, and the women’s softball team would make the Final Four in 2012. UofL would win 10 conference championships in 2010.
All of this occurring in the Big East Conference, a league summarily dismissed by ESPN and other media despite owning an 8-7 won-lost record in BCS appearances. Still, the league was disintegrating, with football schools like Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College, West Virginia, Syracuse and Pittsburgh departing for other venues.
Stuck in the divided and disoriented Big East with an unwieldy composition of football schools competing with basketball-first schools, Louisville flirted with the Big 12 Conference off and on for two years while anxiously watching developments in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Big East, meanwhile, was adding schools from coast to coast which, with the exception of Boise State, had little football tradition.
UConn, based in the heavily populated Northeast TV market, was pronounced the early favorite by ESPN, based in Bristol, Conn. But Louisville, because of its overall athletic success, including the most profitable basketball program in the nation, quickly became the favorite. An upward trajectory in academics, including 36 Fullbright scholars in three years, did not hurt.
Athletic Director Tom Jurich had already been at work for months, cultivating contacts behind the scenes and maintaining communications with old friends in the ACC, among them Florida State AD Randy Spetman, with whom Jurich, then at Colorado State, had worked with at the Air Force Academy in the seventies.
There were unconfirmed reports during the ACC deliberations over UConn and Louisville that the Florida State representative had threatened to leave the conference if Louisville, with its commitment to football, was not invited. Jurich would only confirm that FSU and Clemson had been very helpful during the process.
The very next week head football coach Charlie Strong (pictured right) would decline a job offer from the University of Tennessee to be its head football coach, Jurich promising to match any offer. Turns out Jurich and Strong had never discussed the specifics of a new contract during the negotiations, Strong agreeing to a contract extension until 2020 with details to be worked out later.
The invitation to the ACC was an historic milestone for the University of Louisville, which had labored in the shadow of the University of Kentucky for decades, and will now join the ranks of other schools recognized as premier athletic programs. Louisville, despite, or maybe because of its athletics success, had finally arrived, belonging to an elite group of universities with nationally respected athletic programs.
UofL fans happily accept the congratulations from FSU for the 33-23 win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl, a small token of appreciation for welcoming the Cardinals into the ACC.