2012 is the most important year for Cardinal Football since it came into existence. It isn’t because it is Year 3 of Charlie Strong, led by QB Teddy Bridgewater and because there are any expectations of this particular team. It has EVERYTHING to do with how the College Football landscape has been drastically changed by conference realignment and the new 4-team playoff format that will determine the national champion. The new format has brought along with it new and different exclusionary tactics to further widen the gap between the “power” conferences and the non-traditional FBS leagues.
Except this time the ‘power’ leagues have decided to systematically and collectively destroy one of its brethren. The Big East. In 2005 the Big East began anew after being raided of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College. Then in 2011 the league rejected a record-breaking Television Deal with ESPN on the advice of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, and a few months later Pitt, Syracuse, and West Virginia all left the league in its most vulnerable place to date. ESPN, largely run by Syracuse alumni, no longer has been interested in promoting or protecting the league like it once had. The potential television deal for the Big East? Gone. Inclusion as a power conference? Gone. Automatic berths in the 6 MAJOR bowl games? Not going to happen. Despite the Big East going 24-13 in Bowl Games since 2005 and 7-7 in BCS games since 1998 the league finds itself on the outside looking in at an Atlantic Coast Conference that is 24-34 in Bowls since 2005 and just 2-13 in BCS games. Results apparently do not matter.
How We Got Here
Following the 2006 season where Louisville finished #6 in the final BCS rankings with a 12-1 ranking and a win in the Orange Bowl this isn’t where Louisville football fans expected to be. The program had a top coach in Bobby Petrino, a visionary Athletic Director in Tom Jurich who had just approved stadium expansion, a rapidly growing and enthusiastic fanbase, and a returning roster loaded with talent……………………….
What happened next ushered in the Dark Ages for Louisville Football. Bobby Petrino left for the Atlanta Falcons for double the salary ($2.5M to $5M) and a chance to coach the league’s most dynamic quarterback, Michael Vick. Vick was then indicted and sentenced to jail following a dog-fighting scandal, and Louisville hired Tulsa Head Coach Steve Kragthorpe. Petrino never had the opportunity to coach Vick and returned to college football at Arkansas and later this past spring went through one of the more embarrassing public scandals in College Football History. Steve Kragthorpe was able to win 6 games in his first year ending the school’s streak of 9 consecutive bowl games, before winning 5 games in 2008, and just 4 games in 2009. From there the fan excitement died and expansion on the football stadium was scaled back from 63,600 to 55,000 in the wake of declining fan interest and a weak economic climate.
Picking up the pieces of the rubble that was the 3-year stretch of bad luck following the 2006 season, Tom Jurich shook things up. He hired Charlie Strong who has the program heading in the right direction. In 2010 the Cards had an average attendance of 50,648 in their newly renovated stadium as UofL finished 7-6. In 2011, the Cards finished 7-6 again and averaged a slightly lesser attendance figure of 48,537. The 2010 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl saw the Cards sell over 15,000 tickets for a minor bowl. A year later the Cards stormed into Charlotte for the Belk Bowl sold-out their allotment and the bowl increased its attendance from a year earlier by over 17,000 fans (2010 was Clemson vs. South Florida). The 2011 Belk Bowl was the 8th highest attended non-BCS Bowl at 58,427 just two days after Christmas.
Why 2012 is the Most Important Year…….EVER
2012 is huge for the University of Louisville because of what the program is now capable of and what that would mean for the national audience of College Football. Most namely, that Louisville football deserves to be in the club. The Big East will likely never win over the hearts and minds of college football, so Louisville must find a way into a league where it’s football can be taken seriously. The Big 12. This has been a constant topic of discussion over the past year, but the longer the league drags on a decision to further expand, the longer the Cardinals will be grouped in an unfavorable membership. Thus making it harder to recruit and build a brand worthy of inclusion. I don’t like the blue-blooded, exclusionary nature of college football at all. In fact, I think that the way it is set up is the most un-American and bureaucratic way of crowning a champion ever enacted. The 4-team expansion is a step in the right direction BUT the current deal is set to last until the 2027 season!!! 15 years from now, we MIGHT see an expanded field to 6-16 teams. What kind of damage do you imagine can be done in 15 seasons of college football in terms of revenue, recruiting, perception for the programs, like Louisville, who are on the outside looking in?
So UofL has to win ON & OFF the field in 2012-13. The Cards don’t need National Championships necessarily. But they do need to turn people’s heads, in more ways than one. First of all, Louisville Football needs to win at least 9-10 games in 2012. Winning takes care of everything, but Louisville MUST find their way into a Major Bowl (BCS or Champs Sports) and make a statement.
In the meantime, Louisville FANS must also step up. Louisville averaged 50,648 fans for games in 2010, and just 48,537 in 2011 in the 55,000 Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. It’s true that Louisville’s fan base is located almost entirely in Louisville’s Jefferson County, but the stadium MUST BE PACKED. It’s not enough the PJCS was sold-out for most games in 2010 & 2011, the tickets also need to translate into butts in seats. It’s not for UofL or for revenue purposes on gameday…..it’s for attract-ability for other leagues. It’s about showing up to CardMarch, being in your seat at kickoff.
Lastly, the next and most equally important thing Card Fans MUST do is: Travel to the Bowl game. This is something Louisville has always done well and not received credit for. Take for example the 2006 Gator Bowl when Louisville embarrassed Virginia Tech in ticket sales, but the Gator Bowl representatives refused to give Louisville any credit. In 2007 at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Louisville once again upstaged their ACC opponent in terms of attendance outdrawing Wake Forest by a wide-margin. After a 3-year hiatus from bowl games Cards fans flocked to St. Petersburg, FL and saved the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl from an epic embarrassment as Southern Miss brought it’s band and about a baker’s dozen number of fans.
Finally in 2011 Louisville was actually outnumbered by NC State fans in the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Field in Charlotte, just 2 and a half hours away from NC State’s campus (compared to 7 and a half hours for Louisville fans). Still, Card fans MUST continue to show that they are willing to support their program financially both home and away. By doing so, Cards fans will give themselves the chance to finally prove to the decision makers of the ‘power’ leagues that Louisville fits in. Otherwise, Louisville will find itself on a continuous 12-year slide towards irrelevancy.
There is good news. It appears that everything is in place. Now it’s just a matter of execution. The Big 12 is sitting at 10 teams and is more than likely going to expand to gain an equal share of the post-season puzzle. Louisville still has a visionary athletic director with a top coach in Charlie Strong and a new expanded facility with further renovations on the way. Also a top team coming in with a charismatic leader in Teddy Bridgewater and a stout defense. Louisville is the pick by many to win the league. Now they just have to go out and win impressively. The Fans must do their part as well. Louisville’s fans have long been generous with their money (out-donating the considerably larger fan base of UK $28.2 Million to $14.65 Million), but they also must be generous with their time as well. I think Card Nation is sitting on a huge season in football (and a lot of other sports as well), hopefully somebody notices!!!! *Nudges Big 12*.