August 14, 2007

Meet the new boss

New U of L coach Steve Kragthorpe has an advanced degree in football — and an impressive family treeJust in case he ever needed a regular job, Steve Kragthorpe took some time away from football to earn a master’s degree in business at Oregon State University.U of L football coach Steve Kragthorpe.: Photo by Angela Shoemaker“But I got my master’s in football at Boston College, working for Dan Henning,” Kragthorpe says. “Dan was a great historian of the game of football, and you got not only the Xs and Os part, but you got: ‘OK, when I was coaching Griese, this is how we did it. But Namath didn’t like that. We had Theismann, who was only about 5-11, so that’s when we put in the dash package. And, of course, we had The Hogs and they were good athletes, so that’s why we put in the counter package and we zone blocked everything because they were big and could move.’”Then there was theory.“I used to say that when I was getting my MBA, I’d have a finance class, a management class, a real estate class, an insurance class,” he says. “With Dan, you went to Inside Zone class at 9 a.m., Seven Man Protection class at 10 a.m., and Counter Gap Blocking at 11. So it was really a good experience for me.”And if experience is a key to success in football, Kragthorpe is well endowed to take over as the new coach at the University of Louisville. He’s a guy going places in football, hooked up with a school that is going places, too.Last season the Cardinals finished 12-1, won the Big East Conference championship, ranked in the Top 10 most of the year — up there with Ohio State, Florida, Southern Cal and Michigan — and capped a breakthrough season with a victory in the Orange Bowl. With Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Brian Brohm back to lead one of college football’s highest-scoring offenses, fans’ expectations are sky high. But so, too, it seems, are the ambitions of the new coach, his staff and the team.realistically, another Top-10 team and major bowl bid would make a terrific 2007 season for Louisville. For any team, really. But Kragthorpe doesn’t pussyfoot around about the ultimate goal — possibly within reach — of winning a national championship.“I think that’s a goal all of us have when you participate in a Bowl Championship Series conference, like we do in the Big East,” Kragthorpe says. “The emphasis is winning that conference, and to the conference winner goes the spoils — you get to go to a BCS bowl. I don’t think anybody is going to discount the fact that we want to win every game this year.”Earl Heyman: Photo courtesy of U of L U of L junior defensive lineman Earl Heyman likes Coach Kragthorpe, whose motto is: Show me respect, I’ll show you respect. Play football. Win games.Right now, Kragthorpe can think big and talk boldly because he’s on a honeymoon with Louisville fans. He arrives at Louisville off a successful four-year tour at Tulsa (29-22, with three bowl appearances including a Liberty Bowl victory over powerful Fresno State), in which he lifted that team from nowhere to somewhere. And he comes in handpicked by U of L athletic director Tom Jurich, who has racked up an amazing record of installing successful coaches with U of L sports teams.“I wanted somebody who was going to be a great fit here,” Jurich says. He hired Kragthorpe to his first job as quarterback coach at Northern Arizona in 1990. “And I don’t use that word ‘fit’ loosely. It was very important to me, especially coming off a 12-1 season, and so much success. I know the kids needed a pick-me-up, definitely. They were kind of jolted when Bobby (Petrino) left, and I wanted somebody who could really mold this group back together. And somebody who really wanted to be here. I know Steve turned down jobs, waiting for this one.”Jurich had watched the accolades pour in for Kragthorpe.“I thought the job he did at Tulsa, which I thought truly was career suicide when he took it, was one of the top five jobs ever done in the NCAA,” the A.D. says. “I look back at the job Gary Barnett did at Northwestern, and the job Bill Snyder did at Kansas State. And what Steve did was very impressive to me.”louisville fans greet their new coach as happy campers. Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium rocks with fan support, and Thursday nights have turned into national TV showcases for Louisville football. Things are going great.Of course, Kragthorpe’s predecessor, Bobby Petrino, went 40-9 in four years, before racing off to the NFL. So that’s a very tough act to follow. But Kragthorpe will be fine if he wins. He is far more personable (which is important in Louisville) than Petrino. And he might be just as good a coach.YOU DON’T KNOW THEM NOW BUT YOU WILL: Photo by Bob Manning YOU DON’T KNOW THEM NOW BUT YOU WILL: One of the beauties of the college game is that bright-eyed newcomers show up to take the place of players who graduate.He certainly has the bloodlines, in what offensive coordinator Charlie Stubbs calls Kragthorpe’s football family tree — as important in football, perhaps, as pedigree in a thoroughbred racehorse. Like when a hardboot says a Kentucky Derby prospect is “bred to go a mile-and-quarter on the first Saturday in May,” it’s kind of like understanding that Steve Kragthorpe was born to be a college football coach.Kragthorpe’s dad, Dave Kragthorpe, was head coach at Idaho State and Oregon State, and an assistant under legendary coach LaVell Edwards at Brigham Young University. Dave is now an adminstrative assistant for his son at U of L.“I always admired the job his dad did as the offensive coordinator at BYU, when the passing game was just breaking in in the West,” Jurich says. “BYU was really the cutting edge of it, and his dad was developing quarterbacks right and left.“Then,” Jurich continues, “I followed his dad when he came into the same conference we were in at Northern Arizona. He took over just a horrible, horrific Idaho State team that in the four years before he got there I think they lost 40 games. His dad immediately turned that around, and in two years won the Division I-AA national title.”The elder Kragthorpe then moved to Oregon State, where he lifted another doormat out of the PAC 10 cellar. That’s where, incidentally, Steve Kragthorpe took out what he calls his “insurance policy” MBA — which he’s never had to use.it was when his dad was the air traffic controller at BYU that young Steve Kragthorpe began his football dream.“It was a great situation to grow up in,” Kragthorpe recalls. “I spent 10 years at BYU, from the time I was five till I was 15. My dad was an assistant for two years with Tommy Hudspeth and eight for LaVell Edwards. It was great being around coach Edwards and seeing the way he presented himself, the way he carried himself. The way he approached the game is very similar to the way I approach it. You knew he cared about his guys — not just as football players, but as young men who are going to grow up and progress and be great in whatever they do.”Kragthorpe smiles when he thinks about those days.“I had a chance to grow up around some great future coaches,” he continues. “Guys like Marvin Lewis, who my dad coached at Idaho State, and Brian Billick and Andy Reid at BYU. And guys who you wouldn’t know their names, but they were great guys to me — who locked me in lockers, taped me to tackling dummies, threw me in whirlpools.”[img_assist|nid=5262|title=Brian Brohm|desc=Dave Klotz/Louisville Athletics|link=|align=right|width=179|height=200]Kragthorpe, himself, was a college quarterback at remote Eastern New Mexico State and West Texas State but easily stepped into the national limelight as a coach with the Buffalo Bills, where he mentored star passer Drew Bledsoe during an All-Pro season. Kragthorpe also looks like a quarterback — a tall and rangy guy who could just as easily be a Marine Corps colonel as a football coach. He’s a sparkling speaker, and obviously understands how to maintain a good-guy’s image in a high-profile position. One thing for sure, when he walks into a room he doesn’t get lost in the crowd.Kragthorpe, 42, and his wife Cynthia have three sons, and he says to expect to see his kids, and those of his staff, around the team — just as he was when the coaches were taping him to tackling dummies.“That’s the fun of it,” he says.Because of the long hours and travel time football coaches put in, “your dad’s not around maybe as much as some other kid’s dads are,” he says. “But you get to go see him at work. A lot of kids, their dad’s working with, say, Dell Computer. Well, you can’t go to his office and hang out with him all day. Can’t throw balls around, pick up weights in the weight room and hang out with players in the locker room. But you get to do that when your dad’s a coach.”that family thing might be one reason Kragthorpe is so impressed with star quarterback Brian Brohm, whose two brothers and dad all starred before him at U of L.  Addressing a big gathering this spring at the Wellspring Kentucky Derby Preview Party, Kragthorpe said that when Jurich offered him the U of L coaching job, he only had two questions: “Where are my Derby seats? And is Brian Brohm coming back.”Brohm is back, and so too are his targets, a veritable fleet of wide receivers — headed by tall Mario Urrutia and busy Harry Douglas. It’s a deep group of talented pass catchers that play-caller Stubbs calls “wild horse riders.”But Louisville may not necessarily be pass happy all the time. “When I was the offensive coordinator at Texas A & M we might pass 40 or 45 times and win the game,” Kragthorpe says. “But we upset Nebraska when they were ranked No. 2, and only threw it eight times. We were 2 of 8, but one went for an 80-yard touchdown. At one point in that game I called 22 straight runs, so I guess the passing gods weren’t very happy with me — and I wasn’t too loyal to my BYU roots. But we will do whatever it takes to win the game.”One of Louisville fans’ big concerns is the loss of several key defensive players from the 2006 juggernaut. But that’s one of the beauties of the college game. There are always players graduating, but bright-eyed newcomers arrive to take their places. Kind of like college itself.That’s the way defensive coordinator Mike Cassity sees it.“Two years ago,” he notes, “nobody had heard that much about Elvis Dumervil. And this time a year ago, Amobe Okoye was just a lineman.”Dumervil turned in an All-American season in 2005 and now stars for the Denver Broncos in the NFL. Okoye led last year’s Louisville defense and was drafted in the first round by the Houston Texans.So you never know what, or who, a new season will bring. For example, two players sometimes mentioned as new stars are both named Willie Williams — with the appropriately bellicose nicknames of WW I and WW II.Meanwhile, junior defensive lineman Earl Heyman has Kragthorpe pegged as right for the Cards. “I just like him as a man,” Heyman says. “He’ll come in the locker room and talk with us. He’ll jump around and kid with us. But on the field he’s all business, all serious. His motto is: Show me respect, I’ll show you respect. Play football. Win games.”Louisville’s schedule gets tougher as it goes along. And in the hot sun of August, a new coach isn’t supposed to even mention January, when the big bowls and national championship game take place. But who can resist?“Certainly for us there’s a long road to get to that point,” the coach says. “But if you look at the prize, then you focus on what it takes to get to that game. And I don’t think there’s any question we want to play in the national championship game this year.“People may say that’s a bold statement. But if we don’t have that kind of thought process then we don’t need to be out there practicing right now,” he says. “But in order for that to happen there are a lot of little steps that have to take place. It’s just like a touchdown drive. If you start on the minus-one yard line, sure, you’d like to score in one play. But it might take 14 plays. You just don’t know. And that’s the situation we will be in this year. Win 12 games and that’ll get you to that game.” Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com