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August 19, 2008

Quarterback U - How U of L came to be a football powerhouse, collapsed for a moment and will return in triumph (maybe)

Former University of Louisville football coach Howard Schnellenberger vividly recalls the day his Cardinals were up against it in Morgantown, W. Va. It was 1990, and dreams of a landmark U of L season were fading that afternoon. The Cards could do absolutely nothing against the West Virginia defense, and trailed at halftime 7-3 — lucky to have the three. 


Then, somehow, in the second half Louisville chiseled out two more field goals to beat West Virginia 9-7 — on the way to a 10-1-1 season that culminated with a 34-7 Fiesta Bowl victory over Alabama on New Year’s Day. 

Photo by martypearl.com: Guess which one is the coach.
Photo by martypearl.com: Guess which one is the coach.

In the minutes after the West Virginia game, Louisville radio man Paul Rogers asked Schnellenberger what he said to his players at halftime that changed the course of the contest. “I remember exactly what I said,” Schnellenberger says now. “I told them if there was ever a time for them to play up to their manhood, this was it.”

Play up to their manhood!

A different day, said Schnellenberger: “When men were men and women were glad of it.”

Even if coach-speak has become more homogenized in the 21st century, such crises remain in college football. Eighteen years and four coaches later, U of L head man Steve Kragthorpe is asking the 2008 Cardinals to, in essence, live up to their manhood. For a whole season. 

A year ago, Kragthorpe rode in on a Cardinal-red carpet of lofty expectations. He inherited a talent-laden team headed by a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and coming off a dazzling string of winning seasons. A stadium-full of fans was ready to believe U of L could contend for the national championship. The squad was right. The schedule was right. The planets had aligned.

Except ... 

Instead of roaring to a perfect season, the Cardinals fumbled the opening kickoff against Kentucky, laid down against Syracuse, bickered among themselves, sulked over a bad call in a loss at Connecticut, rallied gallantly to beat Rutgers, but still finished 6-6 and were ignominiously left sitting at home in front of a TV for bowl season. 

Anywhere to nowhere in 12 games. 

Over the winter there was little exciting news on the recruiting front. And then, one-by-one, a series of players were dismissed for smoking team rules — or worse. Coupled with natural graduation depletion and top players gone to the pros, the Cards — it looked like — had seen the bubble burst.


Battered as they’ve been by bad news, though, the loyals still hope. 

“The one silver lining I can see in all these dark clouds,” confides lifetime U of L fan Doug Iler, “is maybe — maybe now — they’ll play as a team.”

Which is exactly what Kragthorpe has in mind. After cracking the whip of dismissal, he greeted the 2008 team this fall with a stern command of expectation.

“There are two big terms for us right now,” Kragthorpe says. “Accountability — making sure you are accountable for everything you do: on the field, off the field, in the classroom, in the community, over at McDonald’s, over at Speedway. Wherever you are, being accountable for everything you do, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Then, on the field,” he continues, “being a dependable football player. Being the guy when you step into the huddle, those other 10 guys know they can count on you to make the plays. Do your responsibility. The more dependable you become, the more likely the coaching staff is to put you onto the field, and the more likely your role will expand as you become more dependable.”

By Kragthorpe’s estimation, cracking the whip had to come first.

“Well,” he says, “we talk about it more now. Simply because we want our guys to understand there is an accountability level that takes place, not only when you walk through this gate, but also when you walk out that gate.”

Kragthorpe’s crackdown could produce results right away. It’s not like he’s trying to reverse 10 years of cellar dwelling. This is a school that’s won like crazy for more than a decade under three straight coaches with Rocky Mountain backgrounds: John L. Smith, Bobby Petrino and now Kragthorpe. And these football Cards are, after all, college kids who get over girlfriends and goldfish and can cram all night for an exam and be fine the next day. College players might be young, but they all have years of football background and sports-discipline experience. By opening kickoff against Kentucky — Sunday, Aug. 31 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium — all that has been wrong could suddenly be right. 

And then they can play Louisville football.


That Louisville football is a brand to have made its mark in college football is something rather extraordinary to behold. 

Louisville doesn’t have a century at it, like Michigan or Alabama or Notre Dame. But gradually — since Frank Camp began a modern football program here after World War II — Louisville has lifted itself into an upper echelon of the sport. Playing outside the power conferences, and with few big-name opponents willing to risk their reputations by scheduling the Cardinals, U of L has come into one of the game’s more stellar reputations: a dangerous team that can score.

A slew of Louisville linebackers played in the pros, receivers flew downfield, runners ripped off yards. Some pretty tough defensive linemen shut down the line of scrimmage, and some skilled offensive linemen have moved it. A good example of the latter is the Orange Bowl-winning team of 2006, which started with a line that could click down the field in the fourth quarter, virtually without interruption. 

But the real U of L hallmark is its reputation as Quarterback U. 

It all got started when Camp brought in the pro-style offense pioneered by Paul Brown (and propagated around football by Schnellenberger, among others) in the 1950s, and found a quarterback who could run it. “I remember Unitas when he first showed up in the pros,” Schnellenberger says. “He was a pretty tall guy, but not real tall, and slow afoot. He’d take that seven-step drop and then step up into the pocket and just seem to disappear in there among all the big guys.

“Then the ball would just appear, coming out of all that muddle. A strike! Straight down the field to a talented receiver.”

(Schnellenberger, by the way, continues to thrive in football. He most recently started a football team from scratch at Florida Atlantic University, and has his Fighting Owls — coming off a winning season capped with a bowl victory — returning almost every starter this season, including pro prospect quarterback Rusty Smith.)

Photo by martypearl.com: The Cards line up for a team photo at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
Photo by martypearl.com: The Cards line up for a team photo at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

Schnellenberger says he met Kragthorpe at the Kentucky Derby this spring and again this summer at the Governor’s Cup press conference. The two are tied philosophically in their belief in the pro-style offense. 

There certainly have been other offenses in college football. Ohio State stuck forever with four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, while Oklahoma and Nebraska veered off to wishbone up 70-points a game. Today, the big thing is what some call the “National Offense,” with the quarterback lined up in a shotgun and all that.

But Louisville has steadfastly stuck to the Paul Brown pro-style T, an offense that depends on great quarterbacking. 

Benny Russell came along after Unitas. Then John Madeya threw deep for Louisville coach Lee Corso’s 1972 juggernaut. Browning Nagle blitzed Alabama for three first-quarter touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl, and Jeff Brohm came out mended with steel pins to beat Michigan State in the 1993 Liberty Bowl. More recently, Chris Redman set every yardage and scoring record in the Louisville book, Stefan LeFors skittered out of obscurity and onto the national stage, and Brian Brohm might have been the best of all of them. 

And there’ve been many of them. 

That’s why they call it Quarterback U.


Out on Belknap Campus, they think they’ve got the next one ready to go. He’s fifth-year senior Hunter Cantwell, a 6-foot-5 cover boy with a huge arm. Cantwell, who apprenticed with LeFors and Brohm, says he’s fully aware of the expectations.

“Everyone knows about the quarterbacks that have played at U of L,” he says. “I mean, our quarterbacks coach, Jeff Brohm, is considered one of the best to play here. Just in my time, with Stefan LeFors and Brian Brohm, I got to see two amazing quarterbacks go out and play football for the University of Louisville. You’re always surrounded with it around this place: Quarterback U.”

Fans might recall Cantwell’s first play for U of L, when he replaced an injured Brian Brohm against Oregon State in 2005. You knew coach Bobby Petrino, a master play-caller, would have one passing play saved up for the occasion, something Cantwell could complete to find his confidence. Neither disappointed. The play unfolded and the receiver came wide-open 20 yards up the middle — as forecast — and Cantwell rifled a bullet to him. First down. 

It’s been pretty much like that every time Cantwell has been rushed onto the field. With Brian Brohm sidelined, Cantwell started the final game of the 2005 season at Connecticut on a cold December day, completing 16 of 25 passes for a victory that lifted the Cards into the Gator Bowl. In the bowl game, Virginia Tech pounded Cantwell mercilessly — but the beat-up quarterback kept peeling himself off the turf, tossing three touchdowns to keep the Cards in the game all the way in a 34-25 loss. 

His reward? Time in six games in 2006 and three last season.

“Hunter is a guy who’s paid his dues,” says Jeff Brohm, the new offensive coordinator. “He’s a guy who came here as a walk-on. I don’t know how much his expectations were when he got here, but he’s worked extremely hard and gotten better and better each year.” 

In high school, Cantwell threw for 70 touchdowns at western Kentucky’s perennial powerhouse Paducah Tilghman, but didn’t attract any college scholarship offers. Why? Who knows? But since he signed up here, without being courted, Louisville fans have seen plenty to like, particularly his ability to throw the football a long way. Pro scouts have noticed, too. 

“I’m definitely a drop-back passer,” Cantwell said. “I’m not going to beat anybody with my legs. That doesn’t mean I can’t run, but my style is to drop back and get it to the wide receivers who are fast, who are agile, who can make plays with their legs.”

Greg Brohm, director of football operations, says Cantwell’s ability to produce on cue hints at some kind of mysterious hidden benefit of Louisville’s offense: Many quarterbacks have blossomed instantly here. 

“I think the system we play in has allowed the quarterbacks to learn while they’ve watched, and to really get assimilated into the speed of the game and producing rather quickly,” Greg Brohm says. “The systems we’ve had have been designed for quarterbacks, and a guy with Hunter’s arm and his physical skills, it’s really suited for him to succeed.”

Quarterback U.


That doesn’t mean Saturday afternoons (and Thursday nights) will be a meteor shower of flying footballs. The pro-style offense is just as much about running the football as passing, says Kragthorpe. 

“One of the big keys of playing quarterback is managing the football games,” the coach explains. “Taking what the defense gives you and getting in and out of runs that are good runs, from bad plays to good plays, and doing a great job of being patient.”

U of L has runners for the running plays. It returns senior starting fullback Brock Bolen, who might just see himself as a throwback to the days when men were men and women appreciated it, a guy who likes to clobber somebody with his block as much as run with the ball. Fullbacks occasionally catch passes too, and remain on full-time duty protecting the quarterback. Bolen’s a guy for all that.

To make the big plays, the Cards have a pair of speedy, young tailbacks in Bilal Powell and Victor Anderson. The story goes that Powell had played both running back and defensive back in high school, but had been placed on defense when he arrived at Louisville. When he developed a case of homesickness, the coaches, knowing his heart lay with running the football, let him practice with the runners. When starters were injured, Powell suddenly got a chance to play — and that’s the last some opponents have seen of him. 

Also a speedster is Anderson, who is not one to take his 10-yard gain and bang into a tackler for two more. As Louisville area high-school opponents learned when he starred at St. Xavier, Anderson is a guy who can run past a tackler and say good-bye. 

U of L, in fact, has a number of top players who prepped in the city, including offensive lineman George Bussey (Western) and defensive lineman Earl Heyman (Ballard), both seniors. 


Amid the constant chatter about quarterbacks and runners, Heyman would remind fans that it is also necessary to stop the opponent, or at least slow him down. Heyman would tell you it’s a different world on the other side of the ball, especially under the regime of new defensive coordinator Ron English, who seems to believe that tough, physical practices will produce tough, physical defenders.

“I like it,” Heyman says. “The one-on-ones and two-on-twos are harder than I’ve ever seen. It’s very competitive out there, especially when we go up against the offense in practice. You get those clashes, where the offense is saying, ‘We’re going to run the ball,’ and the defense is saying, ‘Oh no, you’re not going to run the ball.’

“You get that going, it makes the practices that much faster and more physical. It makes it sharper.”

Which is good, because the defense was not sharp last season. The Cardinals missed a lot of tackles, and you just know a coach who comes from the University of Michigan would — after he recovered from the shock — not possibly put up with that. 

A reporter at press day routinely inquired what players English thought might become the “emotional leaders” of the defensive squad. “Me,” English says, ending that nonsense. “I’m the leader.” 

Right.

“I expect our players to play hard and to respect the game of football,” English says. “And to respect the game of football, you have to play hard and you have to play physical. 

“And,” he adds, “you have to know what you’re doing.”

Of course, all things sound rosy in fall practice. It might not end up that way. The squad is not deep, and to an untrained eye, does not appear to have many mammoth men. A little small, perhaps. But the suddenly overlooked Cards might develop an underdog mentality and play bigger than their numbers and accumulated weight. This is, of course, to play as a team. 

“I think you’ve got to have trust,” Kragthorpe says. “It’s the bedrock and foundation of any relationship. You’ve got to be able to trust that a guy who is supposed to play this run-gap does it, and the guy who is supposed to go out and block that gap in the pass protection, he does it. That’s what this game is all about. I tell our guys all the time football is the consummate team game. If you don’t want to be a team player, go out and get a set of golf clubs or a tennis racket.” 

And if togetherness doesn’t work, maybe they’ll just take out the stored anger and frustration of the 2007 failure on … oh, how about Kentucky? And West Virginia. 

“You know, our team is filled with a bunch of competitors, a bunch of guys who were on that Orange Bowl team and remember what it was like to be really good and really successful,” Cantwell says. “I think a big part of this year is the lackluster year we had last year. That’s a huge motivating factor for these guys who were on top of the world of college football, winning the Orange Bowl, to then go 6-6.

“They want to get back to that top of the world,” Cantwell says. “And we expect to compete with everybody and bring U of L football back.” 

Maybe.