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July 14, 2009
Despite struggles, Cards' Kragthorpe confident
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe relishes his conversations with Bill Belichick.
They don't happen often, but when they do, Kragthorpe hangs on every word from a man who many consider to be the top football coach on the planet.
"The biggest thing I draw from him is that his teams are full of college grads," Kragthorpe says. "Good guys, not just good football players. He does a great job of creating a common bond and making sure guys are excellent in everything they do. That's the same stuff I try to emulate in my programs."
Kragthorpe, 44, swivels in his office chair and glances out a window. He knows his program isn't there yet, not after a 5-7 record last season that gives him an 11-13 two-year record with the Cardinals. That's why Kragthorpe sits on one of the hottest seats in the nation. He knows it, but he also knows he has the support of the most important man on campus.
"Look, Steve is our guy," Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich says. "I know what he stands for and I know what he's doing. I think the staff he has built is outstanding, with guys like Brent Guy, Larry Slade and Matt Wells."
Kragthorpe inherited a team that was coming off a Big East championship season that was punctuated by an Orange Bowl triumph. But Kragthorpe has muddled through two seasons with no bowl appearances. That's why Kragthorpe talks passionately about things like "accountability" and "trust," nebulous intangibles that have been in short supply around the football complex in recent years.
"Just the Golden Rule – treat other people how you want to be treated," Kragthorpe says. "If you don't want your stuff stolen, don't steal other people's stuff. If you don't want to be lied to, don't lie to other people. If you want to gain respect, then give respect."
Not every player has liked Kragthorpe's rules. Only six players are left from Bobby Petrino's 28-man 2005 recruiting class. Attrition from the 2006 class is almost as prolific, with only 11 of 25 signees still on campus.
"When you change things, there always is going to be resistance," Kragthorpe says. "There are some great players here, guys who want to do the right thing in the classroom, in the community, on the field. But there were some guys who weren't, and they had to go. I think there's a myth that to be a world-class athlete you have to be a world-class idiot. But that's not the case.
"The program wasn't in total disarray. We just had to make some changes. Players needed to understand that it's not just what you do on the field, it's what you do 24 hours a day."
The remaining players have bought into what Kragthorpe is selling. Still, expectations outside of the Cardinals' offices are modest, but Louisville could surprise. There is potential for a strong offense led by a good group of wide receivers (Doug Beaumont, Scott Long, Josh Chichester and Trent Guy) and running backs (Victor Anderson and Bilal Powell). But a quarterback must be found, and NFL draft picks Eric Wood and George Bussey need to be replaced on the line.
"Steve is a smart guy," Jurich says. "He knows how to get these guys ready."
Kragthorpe is big on motivational ploys. In 2007, he carried a baseball bat around the football complex as a way of symbolically telling players to be "better after today," a pledge to improve after each practice. He also put mousetraps around the locker room to remind players not to overlook foes.
This summer, Kragthorpe had his players read Tony Dungy's most recent book, "Uncommon." The players read three chapters a week over a 10-week period, and Long led discussions with teammates each Wednesday at the football complex to talk about what they had read.
"Guys comment on whatever; it's an open dialogue," Kragthorpe says. "The energy in the room is incredible.
"I have lots of respect for Tony. It's a great book that talks about excelling in every phase of life. We want them to be productive husbands, contributors to society and good fathers."
Kragthorpe had all that going during a four-year run as coach at Tulsa from 2003-06, when he resurrected a moribund program that had won two games the previous two seasons and hadn't gone to a bowl since 1991. He proceeded to compile a 29-22 record and guide the Golden Hurricane to three bowl appearances and the 2005 C-USA championship.
"Right when I got here, I realized there was going to be a lot of work," says Kragthorpe, who had been an assistant for two seasons with the NFL's Buffalo Bills before taking over at Tulsa. "You take over a team that won 12 games and has a veteran core coming back. I was worried about our defense early on in our first spring practice. I didn't think we had the depth we were going to need. And that was borne out."
The first sign of trouble was an ugly 58-42 victory over Middle Tennessee early in the 2007 season. The Cardinals tackled poorly en route to yielding 554 yards. A stellar offense led by quarterback Brian Brohm was unable to overcome a porous defense, and a season that began with a No. 10 ranking and loads of expectations ended 6-6 with no bowl, ending a run of nine consecutive winning seasons and postseason trips.
Tumult continued that offseason as Kragthorpe replaced both coordinators (Charlie Stubbs on offense, Mike Cassity on defense) and also flirted with taking the SMU job. Little changed on the field last fall, when Louisville went 5-7.
The staff underwent more changes, the most notable being the departure of offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm, who now is the quarterback coach at Florida Atlantic. This season, Kragthorpe will call plays and the staff has six new assistants.
"It has been a challenge, but I like the direction we are going," Kragthorpe says. "We have a tough schedule. I have a good feeling about this team."
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.