November 26, 2013

Strong’s first recruiting class changes Louisville football culture

Photo by Austin Lassell

By Sam Draut

As 20 seniors walked off the field at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium for the final time after a 24-17 win over Memphis on Saturday, the mood was rather subdued.

The 46,421 fans in attendance said goodbye to a group of seniors who had resurrected the Louisville football program, going 35-15 and reeling off four consecutive bowl games.

“I told them there are not too many teams around the country that can say they have 10 wins back-to-back and are 21-3 in their last 24 games,” U of L head coach Charlie Strong said. “I don’t care who you play. It doesn’t really matter. You’re 21-3 in the last two years.”

Some seniors came to Louisville as it dipped down into obscurity under Steve Kragthorpe. Hakeem Smith, Damian Copeland, Champ Lee, and Roy Philon were a part of Kragthorpe’s 2009 recruiting class and redshirted the final year of his tenure.

When Strong was hired in December 2009, he faced the task of rebuilding a depleted football team.  He sold the recruits on the future of Louisville football and the role they could play in building it up.

Strong was able to sway recruits like B.J. Butler and Preston Brown who were committed to other schools.  The recruits bought into his vision for the future.

Because his roster was undermanned, Strong was forced to play his freshmen.

This group of seniors battled as underclassmen, though they were bruised and beaten, they helped to lead Louisville to its first bowl appearance and bowl victory since 2006.

“I just know this, the reason we are in the position we are right now is because of the hard work that they put into our program,” Strong said.

The 7-6 season that culminated at the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in Tampa, Florida laid a foundation for the future.

Strong’s first year success rejuvenated the program and brought in players like Teddy Bridgewater, Calvin Pryor, DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers.

After two consecutive bowl trips and seasons finishing at 7-6, Strong’s first recruiting class headed into their junior year which ended in historic fashion.

The Sugar Bowl victory over number three Florida included a touchdown catch from Copeland, Brown and Hakeem Smith combining for 20 tackles and Marcus Smith bursting off the edge for the game clinching sack.

These 20 seniors entered into their final year at U of L with a preseason ranking of ninth nationally.

The Cardinals climbed up to sixth in the country, but lost 38-35 to Central Florida, potentially ending their chances at a BCS Bowl and a Conference Championship.

Louisville sits at 10-1 and has one remaining regular season game against Cincinnati.  U of L’s BCS Bowl hopes appear miniscule as UCF has two remaining games against teams without winning records.

A season that began with talks of Louisville running the table and coasting to another Conference Championship and BCS berth could now end in discontent.

Since when has 10 wins been considered a disappointment in the Louisville football program?

These seniors have radically changed the culture of the program.  As freshmen, six wins and a bowl appearance was enough for Strong to be nominated Coach of the Year.  As seniors, 10 wins isn’t enough to stamp a distinguished seal on the season.

Regardless of how the final weeks of the regular season shake out, this group can claim two Conference championships, four bowl berths, and a BCS victory.

There aren’t too many classes in Louisville football history with a similar resume.  These 20 seniors bought in Strong’s vision and followed him with unflinching fate as they built up the program.

“I just wanted them to know how special they are and how much they have put into the program and how far the program has come,” Strong said. “For this group it was so special.”

 

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