|With its move to the ACC, Louisville marked another stop in a well-traveled football history. (US Presswire)|
The rapid changing and high stakes of conference realignment have given a post-apocalyptic, "survival of the fittest" feel to college athletics. The schools and conferences that sit passively will get left out, and the ones that are aggressive will survive. Once survival took precedent over television markets and academic consortiums in the minds of the ACC, it was Louisville -- the ultimate survivor -- that became the clear option or expansion.
"With its aggressive approach to excellence in every respect, the University of Louisville will enhance our league's culture and commitment to the cornerstones we were founded on 60 years ago," ACC commissioner John Swofford said in the official release announcing the expansion. “The University of Louisville is an outstanding addition to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and I commend the Council of Presidents for continuing to position our league for the long-term future."
That aggressiveness can be traced back to legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger. When Schnellenberger arrived in 1985, Louisville was a decade removed from the Missouri Valley Conference with only one bowl appearance and two winning seasons to speak of in its first days of football independence. The rebuilding project, which included a 10-1-1 showing in 1990 that ended in a Fiesta Bowl win and top-15 ranking, brought football out from the shadow of the basketball program and brought balance to the athletic department. That balance allowed enhancements for all of Louisville's sports, but most importantly helped fund a football stadium.
Ron Cooper led Louisville from independence into Conference USA -- a league that many did not believe could produce a national champion. The Cooper years were rocky, but the hope of better days returned with the opening of Cardinal Stadium in 1998 and the arrival of new coach John L. Smith. Louisville's administration knew that if the Cardinals were going to become a football power, they would need a respectable stadium and a team to win games. Smith led the Cardinals to two Conference USA titles and five straight bowl games.
Conference realignment struck again as the reins of the football program were handed to Smith's offensive coordinator, Bobby Petrino. The Big East was going to lose Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College to the ACC and looked to Conference USA for replacements. The success of Smith and Petrino, like Schnellenberger's before them, made the Cardinals a fitting addition for Big East survival. Petrino's immediate success also helped the school prepare a massive expansion project for Cardinal Stadium -- which would soon be renamed Papa John's Cardinal Stadium after a healthy-naming rights purchase from pizza mogul John Schattner.
But the free fall from an Orange Bowl win under Petrino to three bowl-less seasons under Steve Kragthorpe hurt even more in the recently expanded stadium. That's when athletic director Tom Jurich, who deserves as much credit for the Cardinals' success as any of the individual coaches, made an aggressive move by hiring Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong.
"When it became apparent to us that we needed to make a move, the ACC is the perfect fit for us, and we are so elated to be joining this prestigious conference," Jurich said on Wednesday.
"This is a credit to everyone at the University of Louisville and our community, as we have all pulled together to position ourselves for this opportunity. It's amazing what has happened here over the last 15 years."
Which brings us back to Swofford's word: aggressive. The ups and downs across the last 30 years in Louisville football always seem to be righted by aggressive moves towards improvement and excellence. Louisville basketball has always been strong, but the brand of Cardinals athletics has been enhanced by football now standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the storied hoops program.
Last season, Strong's second year, the Cardinals earned a share of the Big East title. On Thursday, they will have the opportunity to earn their first BCS bid since Petrino's Orange Bowl. As conference realignment gobbled up their Big East partners, Louisville became tired of hearing reasons that involved television markets and academics. Schools around the Cardinals were getting upgrades, while Louisville -- with arguably the strongest athletic department in the conference -- was getting left out.
It appears the ACC took a long look at the conference landscape and realized it was to survive by any means necessary. The presidents and chancellors weighed the options with several schools and, in the end, unanimously approved one athletic department that has become an expert at survival.
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