Make-or-Break Year Approaching for Louisville's Steve Kragthorpe

Craig MeyerCorrespondent IJuly 9, 2009

LOUISVILLE, KY - OCTOBER 27:  Steve Kragthorpe the Head Coach of the Louisville Cardinals is pictured during the Big East game against the Pittsburgh Panthers on October 27, 2007 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadiumin Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

When Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich turned to good friend Steve Kragthorpe to take over as the head coach of the Cardinals' football program back in January of 2007, the basketball-minded school had been experiencing a renaissance of sorts on the gridiron.

Under then head coach Bobby Petrino, the Cardinals were perennial contenders in a much improved Big East, and were fresh off of a season in which they won the conference championship and beat Wake Forest to capture the Orange Bowl, the school's first and only BCS bowl win.

All of this success was the culmination of an unprecedeted run in which Louisville made nine straight bowl appearances and moved from Conference USA to the Big East.

Louisville football was by no means an upper-echelon program like the USCs and Michigans of the world, but its sustained success under John L. Smith and Petrino (all under the careful guidance of Jurich) seemed to give Cardinal football fans some sense of hope that their beloved program could reach those lofty heights in the not-too-distant future. 

After Petrino left to become the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Kragthorpe was handed an emerging college football power, with a team that was returning several key players from its Orange Bowl squad, most notably quarterback Brian Brohm. 

At the time, it seemed like the transition would prove to be relatively seamless and that people could expect Louisville football to maintain the prosperity it had experienced for the greater part of the last decade.

However, fast forward two and a half years later, and the current situation in "The Ville" would make one think that the Orange Bowl win was centuries ago.

By virtually all accounts, Kragthorpe's first two seasons as the Louisville coach were very disappointing. 

The 2007 team that opened the season ranked sixth in the country and returned such stars as Brohm and wide receiver Harry Douglas stumbled to a 6-6 mark and failed to make a bowl appearance, the first time Louisville had missed out on the postseason since 1997. 

The following year went no better, as the Cardinals went 5-7, bookended with an humiliating 63-14 loss to Rutgers in the season finale.

Louisville's lack of success under Kragthorpe has left an understandably bitter taste in the mouths of Cardinal football fans, and many have become disillusioned with the direction of the program, questioning where all the progress of years' past went, seemingly in the blink of an eye.

In the search for answers and explanations for Louisville's perplexing struggles, the proverbial finger of sports radio, blogs, and message boards have essentially held one man responsible for the decline—Steve Kragthorpe.

While it may seem slightly unfair to blame a single person for the shortcomings of an entire program, the calls for Kragthorpe's ousting certainly have some degree of merit.

His record while at Louisville has been an unimpressive 11-13, especially when considering the 41-9 mark that Petrino posted in his four seasons at the helm. 

There has been an astounding amount of turnover with the Cardinals' coaching staff in the past couple seasons. 

Louisville is set to start the season with its third defensive coordinator in Kragthorpe's time there, and Kragthorpe himself has elected to take the reins as the team's offensive coordinator, a move that could very well signal Kragthorpe's willingness to be more accountable for his team's fortunes (whether good or bad).

In each of Smith's and Petrino's seasons at Louisville, their teams made bowl games.  Neither one of Kragthorpe's two squads has reached a postseason game of any kind.

His offenses have lacked the precise execution and innovative playcalling that were commonplace under Petrino, and his defenses have perhaps been the primary point of concern, letting up staggering numbers of points, even to mediocre offenses (Louisville's 58-42 win over Middle Tennessee State in the '07 season comes to mind).

From a more sympathetic standpoint, many Cardinals fans will point to Brohm as being an unfair victim of Kragthorpe's perceived inability, losing out on millions of dollars and a chance to be an NFL star.

A good majority of pundits and experts had Brohm slated as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, but in the matter of a year (due in large part to Louisville's disappointing season), Brohm fell down the draft boards and was eventually taken in the second round by the Green Bay Packers, where he is now the team's third string quarterback.

Kragthorpe was hired to coach the Cardinals because of the work that he did at Tulsa, taking over a program that had won only two games in the previous two seasons and rebuilding them to the tune of three bowl appearances and a 29-22 record in his four seasons as coach. 

Since Kragthorpe left Tulsa, however, the Golden Hurricanes have posted an 18-5 record in two seasons.

While Kragthorpe's work at Tulsa cannot be negated or compromised by his initial lack of success at Louisville, many wonder whether he was the right kind of coach to inherit a thriving, on-the-cusp program, considering his that all of his accomplishments as a head coach came in helping build a program, not maintaining a successful one.

Despite this underwhelming body of work, there are reasons to believe that Kragthorpe's tenure should be treated with patience and understanding from the Louisville administration and fan base.

The transition from Petrino to Kragthorpe represented not only a change in coaches, but also a change in culture with regards to the leadership styles, personalities, and philosophies of the two men.

Where Petrino was viewed as the dictatorial, overbearing, no-nonsense type, Kragthorpe is a more lenient, passive individual.  To say the least, it can be an awkward and difficult adjustment for players, coaches, and anyone involved in a program, being given a relative amount of free reign after years and years of extremely strict oversight.

For all of his disciplinary zeal on the football field, it has come to light in the past couple years that Petrino had little care for his players' actions and personal character away from the game.  He strictly saw himself as a football coach, and his job was to train them as athletes, not to mold them into decent men.

Petrino's Cardinal football teams won their fair share of games, but a slew of arrested players and run-ins with the law in the months following his departure served as an indicator that a lot of problems within the program may have been masked by on-field triumphs during Petrino's tenure.

From the time that he arrived at Louisville, Kragthorpe has made a concentrated effort to try to head a premier program comprised of quality young men who are not only productive on the gridiron, but also in the community.  It's an admirable effort, but is certainly something that has come under fire given the failures of his teams on the field.

Kragthorpe's years at Tulsa remain as a slight glimmer of hope for Louisville fans, and stands as a reason why he still should be given more time to prove himself as a leader. 

He has clearly not forgotten how to coach, and molding a program under a certain image and philosophy takes time, usually at least a four year span in which a coach can stay long enough to oversee the duration of his first recruiting class' time in college.

So where does that leave Kragthorpe and his Louisville football program at this point?

The Cardinals will enter Kragthorpe's third season with very low expectations, almost unanimously picked to finish seventh out of the Big East's eight teams. 

Virtually every player from the Orange Bowl team is no longer there, and the remaining crop of players are largely unproven, or have yet to demonstrate that they can be impact players on a top-tier college football team.

Jurich, the man whose opinion in this whole situation matters the most, has preached patience to the Louisville fans and boosters, and at this point seems to be Kragthorpe's biggest ally. 

He has been on record as saying that the 2009-2010 season will not be a "make-or-break season" for Kragthorpe, but has explicitly stated that he wants to see progress being made.

Despite Jurich's assurances, it's pretty hard to envision an already irate fan base tolerating a season in which Louisville fails to make a bowl game for the third straight season.

The ideals and beliefs of giving a program time to grow and develop sounds great, but with conference championships and major bowl appearances under Petrino still fresh in every fan's mind, it becomes so utterly confusing how a program that once had so much promise and potential has turned into an also-ran in a weak football conference in a span of only two years.

From confusion, in this particular case, stems anger, disappointment, and bitter rage.  And for the sake of Steve Kragthorpe, Tom Jurich, and Louisville administration and fans, Kragthorpe's third season better show some sort of measurable progress.

If not, Louisville may find themselves in the same situation they were two and a half years ago—looking for a coach, only this time it will not occur in the wake of a BCS bowl win, but rather after a run of mediocrity that may have just set this program back to where it was decades ago.


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