(photo – Sports Illustrated)
The experience is there. The depth is there. The talent is there. The tissue-soft schedule combined with a top 10-15 ranking is there. So why is Louisville head coach Charlie Strong doing all he can to temper fan expectations for his team entering the 2014 season? As Courier-Journal columnist Tim Sullivan wrote today, Strong addressed these lofty expectations at the Governor’s Cup Luncheon yesterday, and he was not exactly adding fuel to the fire. In fact, it could be argued that he was not only trying to hit the brakes, but put everything in reverse a bit as well. If Louisville is to live up to their billing as a contender not just for a BCS bowl, but potentially the national championship, Charlie Strong is not going to pull a Rex Ryan and echo/encourage the hype. He would rather keep things in perspective and take things week by week and leave the hype to others.
The question here would be is Strong simply using generic coach-speak, or is he truly of the belief that his team is getting a little too much attention? After all, whatever happens will ultimately fall on him, good or bad, and while he is wise enough to ignore the hype, the same cannot realistically be said for a group of 18-22 year olds. The Louisville football team will enter the 2014 season with the highest expectations it has had since 2007, when the team returned the core of it’s Orange Bowl winning team, including Heisman candidate Brian Brohm. A similarl storyline surrounds this team, which enters the season following a Sugar Bowl victory and will be led by another Heisman candidate in QB Teddy Bridgewater. Of course, the circumstances are far different now as opposed to 2007. That season was the debut of a new coach, who was given the keys to a Rolls Royce and treated it like an irresponsible, drunk teenager after a high school party. History is highly unlikely to repeat itself under a far more qualified and put-together head coach, but there is no doubt that Charlie Strong is aware of that collapse. He is therefore acting accordingly and knows all too well what can happen when an impossibly high expectation is placed upon a team’s shoulders.
In 2009, Strong was the defensive coordinator of the defending national champion Florida Gators. They returned All-American and former Heisman trophy winning QB Tim Tebow, All-American LB Brandon Spikes and nearly the entire Gator defense from the previous year. Anything short of a championship with a roster like that would undoubtedly be perceived as a failure. As Sullivan writes, Strong remembers the pressure of that season vividly.
“You did not enjoy winning a game because if you only won by seven, well, you should have beat the team by 30,” Strong said.
“And if you beat a team by 30, then you should have beat the team by 40. And I just don’t want that to creep into our team where you had to feel like losing could become devastating, where it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, we got beat,’ and if you win a game they don’t really enjoy it.
“… That happened in that program. We were able to run the table, then we got beat by Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game. You would have thought that we lost every game that season. I just don’t want that to happen with this team.”
Anyone who has listened to a sports radio show, read a blog, or looked at any preseason rankings understands how highly the college football audience views Louisville, which is a change of pace from years past. In his first two years at Louisville, Charlie Strong’s team was picked to finish last in the Big East. His first year, they went to the team’s first bowl game since Bobby Petrino was coach, and in his second, the team won a share of the Big East regular season title. This past season, while highly thought of within the Big East, no one expected the Cards to be able to match up with any of the “big boys” of college football, especially its Sugar Bowl opponent, the Florida Gators. Analysts like Kirk Herbstreit and David Pollack of ESPN practically laughed at the notion Louisville would be able to keep up with an SEC juggernaut like Florida. Louisville responded by delivering an unexpected haymaker to the Gators that would make Mike Tyson cringe.
This season is different. It is the first of the Strong era where the Cards will not be running against the wind. It is the first where they will truly have the national spotlight on them. The expectations are as clear as day, so how will the team respond? Teddy Bridgewater is wise beyond his years and will unquestionably be the leader on offense. Yet, how will the new-look offensive line be without leaders Mario Benavides and Alex Kupper there to guide them? Everyone has seen how the team responds when the world is against them, but how will this group of young men react when everything is expected of them. Surpassing expectations is one thing, but living up to them, especially given the magnitude of those the Cards currently face, can be a completely different obstacle. Again, the experience, depth and talent are all there, but to conquer what is expected of them, the team will need to embrace an almost impossible degree of mental toughness.
Then there is Charlie Strong. While he has proven to be arguably the best football coaching hire in recent memory and has done an inhuman job of turning around a program that was left for dead, he is still only in his fourth year as a head coach. While he did experience the bright lights at Florida, he only did so as an assistant coach. It was Urban Meyer’s job to take them head on while Strong could remain behind the scenes. Now, it is Strong who will be the focus. His media skills have been spotty at best, and he was noticeably flustered (to say the least) when he was continuously asked about the Tennessee job last year. Now, if Louisville happens to stumble during the regular season at all and suffer an unexpected loss, how will he handle the questions? The team has its own intangible obstacles to overcome, but so does Strong. It is the first time both the players and their head coach have had so much expected of them. It almost seems unfair.
Yet, all of this is one big ‘what if.’ This team has been playing together for a long three years now and some have been playing together since high school. They are a tight group who plays well together. They also have never been shy about their confidence in one another, if you happen to follow any of their twitter accounts. They are very aware of the expectations that have been put upon them, and they are very aware that people like Tim Brando expect them to be national championship contenders. This is not the type of group that cowers away from that type of pressure, but rather embraces it. They also have tremendous respect and appreciation for their entire coaching staff. None of the same can be said about the 2007 squad.
This is quite possibly the biggest season thus far in the history of Louisville football. They are playing for everything and a national championship appearance may actually be a possibility. Nothing that has taken place in the Charlie Strong era should produce doubt in the mind of any Louisville football fan. Yet with all the praise and preseason accolades comes the question of whether the team can handle it all. Everything up to now has just been talk. Come August 31st, none of that will mean anything. Charlie Strong knows this, and he will downplay the hype all he can. His determination to keep his team grounded and humble may be the tactic that gets Louisville to where they are expected to go.