Around 75 percent of the time I choose to quote or reference the words of someone far wiser than I. This time, the deep thought taking center stage is this:
“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” –Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
If ever there’s been a time when University of Louisville football fans have needed to heed these words, it’s now, because — and I say this with all due respect to the great Mr. Vonnegut — the past six weeks haven’t just been nice, they’ve been incredible.
I suppose we could start with the news of Louisville’s impending move to the ACC, but I’ve been told by the folks at the FCC that doing so would surpass some sort of limit on fantastic. So we resist.
Instead, let’s go back to Nov. 29. Needing a single victory to secure its second trip to the BCS in program history, U of L faced a Rutgers team it had trailed 49-0 at halftime during a regular season finale in Piscataway almost exactly four years earlier. The situation wasn’t quite as dire in 2012, but with the team trailing 14-3 and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater hampered by both a severely sprained ankle and a broken left wrist, folks back in the Derby City weren’t exactly gearing up for New Year’s in Miami or New Orleans.
What took place in the final 30 minutes on that night will be exaggerated to the point where 30 years from now Bridgewater will have tossed the game-winning touchdown to DeVante Parker from his hoveround. What actually transpired was extraordinary enough: a one-legged, one-armed star quarterback hobbled around the field and made the plays necessary to lead his team to a 20-17 victory and a conference championship. In terms of the most memorable individual performances in U of L sports history, Bridgewater’s spot near the top was reserved the second the game clock hit zero.
The Cards appeared destined for a date in Miami against future ACC foe Florida State in the Orange Bowl before an absolute perfect storm of events allowed Northern Illinois to crash the BCS, sending Louisville to the Sugar Bowl. Looming there was a third-ranked Florida team that the vast majority of Cardinal fans readily admitted they wanted no part of. It was a widely held view that wasn’t without merit. While U of L hadn’t exactly sparkled against the 113th-ranked schedule (there are 120 full FBS-playing college football programs) in the country, the Gators were the nation’s lone team to have defeated four squads ranked in the top 12 and possessed a defense that some were calling the best in the program’s illustrious history.
For the past week, Louisville fans have mocked print, media and television prognosticators alike for the errors of their way, but the dirty truth is that the objective Cardinal fan never saw this coming either. A U of L team, which on paper needed just about every break imaginable to even keep the game close, absolutely dominated Florida for four quarters before walking out of the Superdome with a 10-point victory. It was the biggest upset in BCS history both in terms of point spread (the Gators were 14-point favorites) and the disparity in the rankings of the two teams involved (3 and 21). The argument can be made that it wasn’t the biggest win in U of L football history (it was), but there’s no question that this was the best team a Louisville squad has ever defeated.
Six years earlier, U of L hit a similar peak when it knocked off ACC champ Wake Forest and claimed its first Orange Bowl title. The major difference then was that within 72 hours Cardinal fans would find out their beloved head coach had worked the game with his bags packed for a move to Atlanta, where he had already accepted a position to become the new coach of the Falcons.
Those concerns were so three weeks ago this time around, as the whole of Card Nation had already sweated out Charlie Strong’s brief flirtation with Tennessee in early December. Though short-lived, the saga took a toll on the entire program. Most notable was the press conference following the Rutgers win in which Strong not only dodged questions about his future, but took a few shots at the Cardinal fan base, including a recommendation that they be more like the fans of their Big Blue arch-rivals to the east. He could have endorsed the end of alcohol sales at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and it would have gone over better.
Ultimately, Strong pledged his allegiance to the school that finally gave him a shot as a head coach, saying during an emotional press conference: “You can buy a person a lot, but you can’t buy his heart. His heart is where his enthusiasm is, where his loyalty is. My enthusiasm and heart are with the University of Louisville.”
He was forgiven. The press conference was good, but resurrecting a program that some had believed to be irreparably damaged by Steve Kragthorpe was still probably his ace in the hole.
Whatever their reasons, Louisville fans made the not-so-cheap trip to New Orleans in record numbers for the second time in eight months. Their presence was so great that Strong declared them the game MVP during the post-game celebration. It was a perfect moment. So perfect that if it was a bad horror movie, nobody watching would have flinched when the presumed dead Florida Gator shot open his eyes and made his final lunge at the Sugar Bowl trophy.
As sweet as the moment is, wild dreams — realistic or not — about the future always tend to be sweeter. The inevitable big thinking that Cardinal fans will engage in over the next eight months is justified, as Louisville returns 18 starters, including Bridgewater, from its Sugar Bowl championship squad. Oh yeah, and Strong also just received a verbal commitment from one of the top high school players the city of Louisville has ever produced, Trinity wide receiver James Quick.
If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.