There are truths in all lines of business and in all avenues of life.  “How much is enough,” “what if,” and “I’ll be happy when,” are all thoughts that we have had professionally and personally as we go throughout life.  The world of college football coaches is no different. Football fans at the University of Louisville have seen successful Cardinal coaches ask these internal questions and collectively wonder “when will these coaches get it?”

In regards to Charlie Strong’s recent embarrassment Saturday night 41-7 to BYU let me begin by saying this; I am not anti-Charlie Strong.  Cardinal fans will forever be grateful for his work here at Louisville digging out of the Steve Kragthorpe era. He was offered something he felt he had to take and he did.  More money, (although Tom Jurich would not have been outbid,) more prestige, bigger budget, fan base, fertile recruiting ground, etcetera…  The point of this post is to point out the fallacy that bigger is better and that the grass is greener.  Clearly a look at the modern coaching history (post Schnellenberger) illustrates this point.

Exhibit A – Howard Schnellenberger.  Career record at the University of Louisville, 54-56-2.  His record obviously doesn’t tell the story of Howard’s tenure at Louisville.  Bringing the Cardinal program from the brink of extinction to a high water mark of 10-1-1 and a Fiesta Bowl win over Alabama, Schnellenberger proved his greatness and his ability to lead with the Louisville teams he coached.  While he did not leave U of L for money, he did bolt for the head coaching job at perennial powerhouse Oklahoma in 1995.  That year, the pipe got out of hand and a dumpster fire ensued.  He finished his one and only season at OU with a 5-5-1 record and resigned.

Coach Schnellenberger laid the foundation for the program that Cardinal fans now enjoy, but he also began another trend.  This is a trend that has repeated itself almost cyclically.  It is a trend Cards fans are too familiar with.

Exhibit B- John L. Smith.  John L came to the program as the 1st football hire of new Athletic Director Tom Jurich after watching the program flounder under Ron Cooper.  While the name was not flashy at the time, Jurich did deliver.  John L. amassed a record of 41-21 from 1998 to 2002.  His teams showed toughness, he was different, (slapping players in the face for good plays) and the town embraced the old cowboy from out west.  The program was on the rise with bowl games in each of his years at the helm, (only one win) John L. left for the same position at Michigan State.  Word leaked of his impending departure during the GMAC Bowl which the Cardinals ultimately lost and to pile on John L. told the Louisville fan base they needed to “understand where they were on the food chain”.

Alas, while Smith was highly sought after, his fate would not be much better than Howard’s.  After four years at Michigan State the quirky cowboy was fired.  He had a record at MSU of 22-26.  He lost the only bowl game his team played in and he has never regained the success he enjoyed at the University of Louisville, did a radio show here locally with Drew Deener, was hired as an assistant coach at Arkansas with Bobby Petrino, before taking the Head job at Weber State before calling an audible and filling in for Petrino as interim head coach in 2012. John L. never had it better than he did while he was at UofL.

Exhibit C Bobby Petrino.  It is clear that the last chapter for Coach Petrino has not been written.  That is due in large part to his return to the Louisville program, but it is fair to say that greener grass was not waiting for Bobby when he left the Cardinals program after the 2006 Orange Bowl season.  Obviously, 41-9 was the pinnacle of the Louisville program when Coach Petrino patrolled the sidelines.  While taking the Atlanta Falcons job was an understandable departure for double the income and a chance to coach the league’s most talented player at the time in Michael Vick, the end result in Atlanta was ultimately a failure in bad luck when Vick was convicted of federal dog fighting charges.  Leaving in the middle of his first season in Atlanta with a note to the players and an impromptu press conference the next night in Arkansas, Bobby definitely did not garner any public relations points.  If his start in Arkansas was a PR nightmare, his well-documented ending was nothing short of catastrophic.

Petrino did contend in the SEC West and had two excellent teams in Fayetteville that fell short in the Sugar Bowl and won the Cotton Bowl but both stops took a toll of their own and there is a reason why Petrino still considered Louisville home even while away.

Exhibit D- Charlie Strong.  Coach Strong is a good man.  He cares about his players, his family and he cares about the fans.  He is different than most and someone Cardinal fans thought would be here long term.  He is different, but he is also fatally the same.  He came, he restored, he won and brought pride to the football team again.  Then, as if on cue, he left.  Another big name program, another promise of greener pastures, brass rings and all the glitz that is associated with running the largest football program in America.  Say what you will about the SEC, but the University of Texas is second to no one with respect to their commitment to football.  It was an understandable choice, I guess.

While the grass in Austin looked greener 6 months ago, I cannot help but wonder how it feels now.  After Saturday’s 41-7 home loss to BYU, multiple players being kicked off the team or suspended, and reliance on a true freshman quarterback, Charlie will likely age Presidentially.  It is said that those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them.  From Schnellenberger to Strong, the coaching tree at Louisville is littered with examples of just that point.

So what is different now?  Is today a different day, is the school a different school, is the coach a different coach?  The answers are yes, yes, and maybe.  Yes today is a different day.  The University of Louisville is not the same team that Schnellenberger, Smith, Petrino and Strong left.  The move to the ACC has cemented Louisville firmly in one of the Power 5 conferences, and the national perception has changed with that move.  Cardinal fans have shown in the first two games the type of passion that Strong dreamt of but was too impatient to wait for.  The school is different too.  The infusion of the ACC to the University of Louisville has a powerful impact.  This impact will be felt in all of the arenas, gyms and stadiums the athletes compete in, but it will also trickle down to the research and academic programs as well.

The last question is has the coach changed?  That is a definite maybe.  Only time will tell.  Coach Petrino has said all the right things.  To my knowledge he has done all the right things.  You certainly cannot argue with his production on the field.  With his return comes the excitement of high octane offense and fierce competition.  We knew that would be here.  The change that matters is whether or not he has decided what no successful coach before him in the modern era has.  Is Louisville enough?  Will he always long for more, or can he be truly happy here?  As fans, we all know he can and will win.  As Cardinal fans we also know that he can and will be approached about coaching opportunities at other locations.  How he handles this will be the true measure of the program and the coach’s growth and I think we’ll see that too, has changed.


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Keith Poynter

Keith Poynter graduated from the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law in May of 2011. While in law school, Keith studied Sports Law as well as other core curriculum. Prior to becoming an attorney, Keith worked in the insurance industry for 6 years, and was a police officer in both Kentucky and Tennessee for 6 years. As an avid sports fan, former basketball official and current youth sports coach, Keith is heavily involved in sports when not at work or with his family at the lake. Keith's diverse background makes him an excellent source for legal opinion about issues surrounding the sporting world. Whether the matter be criminal or contractual, Keith's unique experience and education allows him to offer insight that may be missed by the casual fan. Keith is available for commentary on any legal issues that may arise in the Kentuckiana area and will routinely post articles concerning local and national sports law topics.

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