By: Daryl Foust
When I talk about ‘The Voice’, I’m not talking about the American reality TV singing competition or even the Season 5 contestant and 2011 Miss University of Louisville Olivia Henken. I’m talking about the man who has been the voice of the Cardinals for the past 40 years. Paul Rogers. A man who has watched the University blossom, I decided to sit down and discuss his experience and share the history of the Cards from the man who has seen it from the lowest times into what we know it as today, the ‘Year of the Cards’.
Rogers grew up in the city of Louisville as a Kentucky fan that followed Louisville athletics but attended UK games with his family. After graduation from Eastern High School, he attended the University of Kentucky and graduated with a degree in telecommunications. In the summer of 1973, Kentucky football moved to its current home of Commonwealth Stadium and Rogers moved to his current position, his first and only job as ‘The Voice of the Louisville Cardinals’ (football and men’s basketball).
As far as campus and how it has progressed over time Paul says “You wouldn’t recognize it. When I started… Probably the best example I can give you is that I grew up in Louisville and never really knew where the university was.”
Rogers says when it comes to basketball, “(Bernard) ‘Peck’ Hickman laid the foundation for basketball even before Denny Crum came.” Hickman lead the Cardinals to the 1948 NAIA Basketball Championship, which at the time was the prominent basketball tournament. Oh how the times have changed.
The University’s next major move was hiring Denny Crum, assistant coach under the UCLA great, John Wooden, to become the men’s head basketball coach in 1971. In his first season he led the Cardinals to the Final Four and the program’s first national title in 1980 defeating his alma mater, UCLA by a slim margin of 59-54. The University’s men’s basketball team has also been credited with making the ‘high five’ a social phenomenon. At basketball practice during the 1978-79 season, forward Wiley Brown went to give a low five to teammate Derek Smith when Smith looked at Brown and said, “No. Up high.” Midway through the second half of the championship game against UCLA, Brown overpowered his opponent, banked in the shot and drew the foul. Brown immediately raises his arm to slap Smith a high five and BOOM! A tradition was born. Six seasons later, Crum lead the program to a second national title against Duke University (72-69).
In 1985, Howard Schnellenberger was hired as the head coach of the football team. He inherited a struggling program that hadn’t had a winning season since 1978. The team was playing in a washed up baseball stadium and was forced to give away tickets for the lack of interest in the program. Rogers recalls “Schnellenberger showed people that the school could dream big in football too”, when at the time, the football team was just a shadow to the prominent men’s basketball program. At his opening press conference, he shocked reporters and the city when he said the University of Louisville “is on a collision course with the national championship. The only variable is time.” Today, somewhere, Schnellenberger is enjoying a tobacco pipe with a fat grin painted across his face. In 1991, Schnellenberger lead the Cardinals to Fiesta Bowl and dominated the SEC powerhouse, Alabama Crimson Tide, 34-7. Today, the football team enjoys the foundation and resources of the Howard Schnellenberger Complex and exits the building every home game surrounded by fake fog and 55,000 screaming fans.
When he began his career, the Cardinals football team was playing at Old Cardinal Stadium. Hard to believe that the team now playing regularly in front of 55,000 fans, once played in a facility that housed as many as 7 different teams. But he notes that there was a certain ‘charm’ to Old Cardinal, located in the Kentucky Exposition Center. “The noise would bounce off the roof and the press box would literally bounce up and down. When the team moved to Papa Johns in 1998, it was a huge upgrade. It was the first time Louisville had a place they could call their own. It was on campus. I remember the first Kentucky game. Even though Louisville ended up getting beat by a big (margin). It was 68-34” Rogers says.
Before we knew Tom Jurich to be the Athletic Director, Bill Olsen held the title. He stepped down from the position in 1997 after the men’s basketball program had been cited for NCAA violations and 2 years of probation. Jurich is another that Roger’s considers to be one of the most influential people in the University’s history and has helped propel Louisville to today’s ‘Year of the Cards’. Jurich’s first move was to replace the head football coach, Ron Cooper, with John L. Smith and move the team to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium (PJCS).
Rogers’ most memorable games he has called for the Cards include the in-state rivalry overtime game verses Kentucky in 2000, ‘The Rain Game’, where the Cards left Lexington victorious (40-34). The 2002 overtime game verses Florida State (another rain game) where the Cards upset the nationally ranked Seminoles (#4) resulting in the crowd rushing the field and dismantling the goal posts. The 2006 matchup between the undefeated Cards and the undefeated West Virginia Mountaineers, both ranked in the top five. The Cards, again, walked away victorious (44-34). In the same 2006 season, the Cards faced nationally ranked University of Miami at PJCS. Miami seemed to have written their own destiny when the team chose to stomp on the Cardinal bird logo midfield. Louisville said ‘not in our house’ and thrashed the Hurricanes 31-7 causing them to exit the top 25 for the first time since 1999. “It was the fact that they were big wins over good teams under really memorable circumstances,” Rogers recalls.
In 2010, Jurich took another leap of faith when he hired Louisville’s current head football coach, Charlie Strong from the University of Florida. It was Strong’s first opportunity as a head coach at any program, yet Jurich believed in his potential. So much so that Jurich upgraded PJCS to include 13,000 more seats and a party deck that held 2,500 more. Rogers says “The new expansion to me, it’s almost a totally different place. The upper deck makes it look so ‘big-time’”. Paul says that the 2013 football team is the best one he has seen in his 40 year career. “I don’t think we will play for a national championship but I think they’re one of the elite teams in the country. Talent wise, depth wise, coaching, scheme, you name it.”
Rogers also says that men’s basketball head coach Rick Pitino is a major contributor to the program’s successes today, “I’m actually surprised they don’t already have a Rick’s Louisville sign raised.” In regards to the returning national champions basketball team Rogers says that “I think this year’s team could be every bit as good as last year’s team. To win a championship you have to have a lot of things fall into place. You can be really good and not win a championship.”
When I asked if he preferred to call basketball or football games more, Rogers says “I like whatever is in season. I like variety.”
I asked if he had a vote for the ‘Year of the Cardinal’ Homecoming King who he would choose between the 2013 Final Four MVP and the Russdiculous we all know and love. After a giggle, Rogers goes on to say “I think it’s really neat that the athletes have gotten involved in that. I like the fact that they’re being involved in campus life.”
In regards to the Cardinals once again packing their bags and moving conferences, heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference, “Oh, I can’t wait. If I ever gave any thoughts about retirement, that’s going to keep me going for a while.”
After 40 years of devotion to the University and watching it grow as his own, Rogers says that he is so engrained in the program that he wouldn’t consider leaving as the Voice of the Cardinals. I believe that he, too, will one day have a banner raised on a downtown building that reads ‘Paul’s Louisville’.