“Louisville is on a collision course with the national championship. The only variable is time.”
That quote was given by Coach Schnellenberger in 1985 when the former Miami national championship coach arrived at the fairgrounds to pump some ambition into the program. When “The Coach” discussed time being a variable, I think what we’ve seen the past two decades is what has to happen in order for Louisville football to reach the ultimate prize. It does indeed take time.
Given his declaration for the NFL draft today, Lamar Jackson may very well be the biggest “building block” in the project that Louisville football has been. The biggest figures in Louisville football over the past thirty years have all brought the program to a point where we all thought wasn’t possible. All of these figures have gotten us from one improbable level to the next. Lamar Jackson, to date, has been the greatest example.
Howard Schnellenberger and Jeff Brohm brought big time programs to Old Cardinal Stadium in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The coach-quarterback duo took Louisville to multiple bowl games and won them. Schnellenberger got Louisville into a legitimate football facility. An annual rivalry game with Kentucky was the cherry on top of Schnellenberger’s accomplishments at Louisville. Schnellenberger was hired away from Louisville by the University of Oklahoma.
John L. Smith, Chris Redman, Dave Ragone, Arnold Jackson, and Deion Branch made bowl games an annual event for Louisville football. Under Smith, Louisville having the best quarterback in the conference became an annual thing. Conference championships (and beating longtime bully Southern Miss) became an annual expectation for Louisville under Smith, Ragone, and Co. Beating Kentucky became an annual event for Louisville football under John L. Smith. Smith, would be hired away by Michigan State.
Bobby Petrino, Stefan LeFors, Brian Brohm, Michael Bush, and Elvis Dumervil made BCS bowl games an expectation for Louisville football. Winning the Orange Bowl will do that. Thursday nights became Louisville’s primetime slot on ESPN. Thursday night games with national championship implications (and winning) took place at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium under Petrino with Brohm and Bush in the backfield. Wins over Kentucky no longer required touchdown runs in overtime. Bobby Petrino would eventually be hired away by a Michael Vick-led Atlanta Falcons.
Charlie Strong, Teddy Bridgewater, and a defense loaded with NFL talent made Louisville a multiple BCS game winner with its domination (and Bridgewater’s dissection) over Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Strong and Co. made the NFL draft a Louisville-centric event. Winning games against elite programs became an expectation for Louisville under Strong after victories at West Virginia, Florida, and Miami. A big red recruiting pipeline was laid from Kentucky to the state of Florida. Louisville at this point was outclassing in-state rival Kentucky. Strong would eventually be hired away by the University of Texas. The beloved Teddy Bridgewater, was one of three quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. That defense saw multiple players get drafted.
That brings us to Lamar Jackson. Jackson was yet another building block in the house that Louisville football is looking to build. It’s still under construction. Jackson has taken Louisville to heights our fan base never saw the program experiencing. We’d seen elite programs host College GameDay or send their players to New York to claim their Heisman trophies. I think Lamar Jackson helped Louisville take the biggest leap. With Jackson under center, Louisville had the best player on the field with the mighty Auburn Tigers on the opposite side. Lamar Jackson brought not only Heisman-hype, but a Heisman Trophy to the Louisville football program. A beatdown of Florida State made Louisville a serious playoff contender and Jackson the runaway Heisman favorite. Just one week later Jackson had Louisville within a yard (not his fault) of beating Clemson on a Saturday night in Death Valley, on ABC. Fowler and Herbstreit being the ones calling names like “Jackson”, “Radcliff”, “Hikutini”, and “Alexander” had Louisville looking the part of an elite-level program. It didn’t take our fans long to figure out that Jackson was going to be great. But I don’t think any of us expected a Heisman Trophy and two College GameDay’s here at Louisville. Lamar Jackson was responsible for all of that. Louisville football took another step forward in Jackson’s three years. A friend of mine that cared nothing about college football but joined me at the Music City Bowl wowed out loud during Jackson’s long touchdown run. The first question my cousins from Australia asked when they came to visit was if they were going to get to see Lamar Jackson play.
So because of Jackson, it is fair for our fan base to believe that the next coach or player at Louisville could help the Cards take another step towards that national championship. What will that step look like? Is Puma Pass that player? Is Jeff Brohm that coach? I don’t think it’s fair or logical to have those expectations, but it is fair for us to believe they can.
The Lamar Jackson Effect, ladies and gentleman.