During Coach Steve Kragthorpe's last year at the University of Louisville, morale amongst the Cardinal fan base was very low. Several seats at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium were empty during games and the fans who did come would leave before the end of the third quarter.
Things have changed in the past two and a half years. There is an expectation now in Louisville that the sky is the limit for their football team.
The spark within Card Nation started when athletic director Tom Jurich announced the hiring of former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong in 2010. Jurich said after he hired Strong: "I just wanted somebody so hungry he would crawl here, and there's no doubt he would crawl here."
The hunger of Strong to build a powerful program has been shown in the way he has put an amazing coaching staff around him, the way he has recruited great prospects and the way he brought character and integrity to the team.
Now in Strong's third year as the Cardinals head football coach, Louisville is expected to win the Big East conference and make their first BCS bowl since 2006.
With a talented quarterback in sophomore Teddy Bridgewater, several offensive weapons and a young but very athletic defense—this could be what fans have been praying for.
Coach Strong wants success off the field as well as on the field. "If a young man walks out of our program without a degree, that's our fault, Strong said during this year's Louisville football luncheon. "Success is very fragile; the margin of success is very small."
The focus on academic excellence by Coach Strong and the rest of the coaching staff has raised the team's GPA tremendously over the past two years. In this year's spring semester, 37 of the Cardinals achieved a 3.0 or better grade-point average; as a team they had a GPA average of 2.78.
The team has had some off-the-field issues. Last year, cornerback Darius Ashley had to leave the team after being arrested twice for DUI. After dismissing Ashley from the team, Strong vowed to help him, telling NBC Sports:
“Any time you talk about do you dismiss a young man,” Strong said, “when you see what has happened, two within seven months, you dismiss him from the team—What does he become? Just another statistic in society? So what did we accomplish and how did we help him? You have to help people. Here’s a young man who has never been an issue on our team until those two issues that he had, which are two serious issues, but he’s a young man, he went to class, never had a class issue with him, did all the right things. …We have to help young people.”
Senior Greg Scruggs, who now plays for the Seattle Seahawks, missed last year's Belk Bowl after also being arrested for DUI. But Strong has said over and over again that he is committed to helping young men, that is why it was no surprise when he allowed Zeke Pike joined the team recently.
Pike was dismissed from Auburn after being arrested for public intoxication. “It's about changing lives, not just about winning football games,” Strong said when asked about the addition of Pike during this year's media day.
There is something uniquely different about Charlie Strong and Louisville fans as well as the coaching staff—they know they have something special.
"Having the opportunity to coach with a man who truly cares about the young men he coaches is a great motivation for me as a man,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “What Coach Strong has done in a short time in changing the culture at the University of Louisville is rare.”
With all the success that Strong has brought to Louisville's football program, fans continue to ask, “How long will Strong stay at Louisville?” The Big East isn't the most dominant football conference and no one could blame any coach for leaving if schools like Georgia or South Carolina start knocking at the door.
But for now, Louisville fans have a lot to look forward to as Charlie Strong leads their team into the 2012 season.
Follow Jon Hancock on Twitter @JonKySportsco
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