At the end of Louisville's flogging of Florida in the Sugar Bowl in January, as confetti fell from the sky and fans poured onto the field, coach Charlie Strong and athletic director Tom Jurich locked in a heartfelt embrace.
For Strong, who didn't become a head coach until Jurich hired him at age 50, the circumstances of his breakthrough victory proved poignant. He not only beat an SEC power in a BCS bowl, but the victory came against a Florida program where he'd previously toiled anonymously. For Jurich, the moment validated his program's recent invitation to the ACC and showed that the resources and infrastructure he'd allocated could enable Louisville to compete at the highest level.
But the most compelling part of that on-field embrace is simpler: It could mark the start of a remarkable run for Louisville football.
"We beat the third-ranked team in the country and didn't have a kid drafted," Jurich said. "That says everything to me, and says everything you need to know about Charlie. We're going to be able to see a lot of those great moments."
Louisville has transformed from a 4-8 Big East team in 2009 into a preseason top-10 team in 2013 with quintessentially first-world problems. Playing one season in the American Athletic Conference before its move to the ACC in 2014, Louisville's Puffs Plus schedule may prohibit it from entering the national title race. The Cardinals are also dealing with an agent issue; agents attempted to contact players and their families so consistently this spring that Strong had to issue a declaration requesting they stop until after the season.
As the stakes surge, it's worth reflecting on how Louisville got so far so fast. With 19 starters returning and a front-line Heisman candidate in Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville is one of the most fascinating programs in college football this season.
Louisville's rebirth began with a dinner in Florida nearly a decade ago, got pushed along thanks to a call to Tony Dungy and has prospered behind an influx of talent. Suddenly, the Cardinals find themselves in an entirely new conversation.
"Is this team Alabama? Is this team South Carolina? Is this team LSU?" Strong asked himself while watching SEC Media Days. "Are we in the conversation with those guys? That's the question."
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In the fall of 2009, it became obvious that coach Steve Kragthorpe's career at Louisville was sputtering to an end. A 4-8 season left him just 15-21 over three years, and Jurich had seen enough.
"I thought he'd be a can't-miss," said Jurich, who'd seen Kragthorpe resuscitate a flat-lined Tulsa program. "And, obviously, I made the wrong move."
With uncertainly surrounding the Big East's future and a program spiraling since an Orange Bowl win in 2006, Jurich needed a dynamic hire to put Louisville in the best position for conference realignment. "Our home," said Jurich, "was dissolving right out from under us."
More than a decade earlier, Jurich had dinner at an Orange Bowl function with Urban Meyer, who he'd worked with at Colorado State, and Strong, then an assistant at South Carolina. (Meyer and Strong were friends from their assistant days at Notre Dame.) The night stuck with Jurich, who dined with Strong and his wife, Vicki, and began to closely monitor Strong's career.
Strong nearly got his first head-coaching opportunity after the 2002 season, as Jurich said the finalists for the Louisville job after John L. Smith left for Michigan State were Strong and Bobby Petrino. But Strong finished second, a familiar place for him -- always interviewed, never introduced at the press conference.
His reputation as a recruiter, strategist and mentor was impeccable, as he worked for Steve Spurrier, Meyer and Lou Holtz and coached everywhere from Texas A&M to South Carolina to Florida. Yet even after a signature performance -- his Florida defense shut down Oklahoma's record-breaking offense in the 2008 BCS title game -- Strong couldn't convince anyone to take a chance on him.
Strong, 53, didn't like to talk about his head-coaching prospects while he was an assistant. He never courted the media and didn't pontificate about being the first black coordinator in the SEC. Nor did he discuss the scary reality that his interracial marriage may have hurt his chances with the good-ol'-boy network of boosters and administrators.
But when Jurich researched Strong in 2009, he heard glowing recommendations from Dungy and Meyer. Jurich came away amazed that Strong had never received a shot.
"It was baffling to me that for 20-something years he could be passed over," Jurich said. "To this day it's probably the biggest shock of my career."
On the outside, Strong shocked the college football world by turning down overtures from Tennessee last December to stay at Louisville. Strong admitted to SI.com that he'd have likely looked a lot longer and harder for a new job had Louisville not been invited to the ACC in November.
But the conference invitation assured Louisville of a national platform, a strong recruiting foothold in the Southeast and the stability that comes with bigger money and added exposure. Jurich now considers Louisville one of the country's 10 best jobs, and while some of that may be local hyperbole, he certainly has flashed the fiscal resources to back it up: Strong now finds himself among the country's 10 highest-paid coaches, at $3.7 million per year.
Strong's latest contract also shows just how committed the coach is to Jurich, the man who finally offered him a chance. Strong's deal includes a significant buyout -- $5 million for 2013 -- that should scare off most collegiate suitors. (The buyout decreases every year.)
"We're going to do everything within our power to keep anyone," Jurich said. "I was prepared to match anyone. Probably the only people I can't compete with are the NFL."
That financial commitment expands to assistant coaches. Both Virginia Tech and USC tried to court offensive coordinator Shawn Watson in the offseason. He stayed at Louisville, agreeing to a two-year deal worth nearly $500,000 per season.
"It's all about, is your AD or your university providing you with every resource possible to be successful?" Strong said. "Tom Jurich will."
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Fifth-year senior receiver Damian Copeland recalled an environment before Strong's arrival at Louisville in which players went to class infrequently and "guys were barely practicing." He said Strong came in with a simple message to change the culture: "If I can show you a team with good grades, it'll be a great team. If I show you a team with bad grades, it'll be a bad team."
Strong proved a steady leader, and the players found him tough but fair, a genuine locker room presence who demanded accountability. There's little sizzle to Strong, but plenty of steak.
"He ain't no pushover," said safety Hakeem Smith. "He isn't a guy you can come in and take advantage of. You're either with him or not."
Strong is effusive when recalling his first year as a head coach in 2010, when the program's 25 seniors led Louisville to a 6-6 regular-season record and an appearance in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. Louisville's 40-13 victory at Rutgers to secure bowl eligibility sent the program hurtling in the right direction. It began hinting at a larger-scale revival. "That team was a team that set the foundation for where we sit right now," Strong said.
Louisville went 7-6 in 2011 as well, rebounding from a 2-4 start to win five of its final six games to close out the regular season. The '11 campaign began to showcase the young talent that Strong brought into the program. After losing 25 seniors, Louisville needed a crew of replacements, many of whom Strong found in south Florida. Strong recruited Florida for years as a Gators assistant and hired a staff with strong ties to the Sunshine State. (That includes Clint Hurtt, an assistant coach with strong ties to the Miami area who is awaiting word from the NCAA on alleged recruiting improprieties while an assistant coach at Miami.)
When Louisville hired Strong, he and his staff exploited the uncertainty in the Miami program in the wake of Randy Shannon's firing. Strong cleaned up in one of the country's most fertile recruiting areas, as the roster counts five players from Bridgewater's Miami Northwestern High and 39 players from the state of Florida. Strong emphasized that it's a priority for Louisville to recruit the top players in the state of Kentucky, but there simply aren't enough of them to be nationally competitive.
Strong says Louisville's talent in 2013 is worlds apart from where it was in 2009.
"It's not even close," Strong said.
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The reality of Louisville's 2012 season was largely overshadowed by its dominant performance in the Sugar Bowl against Florida. The Cardinals were blown off the field at Syracuse and lost to a woeful UConn team in overtime. They had great escapes against both Rutgers and Cincinnati, and seven of Louisville's 11 wins came by 10 points or fewer.
Much of Louisville's preseason hype is based on one win and 19 returning starters. But there's a question whether the young team can be mature enough to handle the week-to-week focus required to return to the BCS.
"Are we an elite team?" Strong said. "That's the question. The only way that question will be answered is how we prepare every week."
Many pundits believe the Cardinals should go undefeated, as they likely won't face a Top 25 team all season. The talent is there, starting with Bridgewater, who is considered by some the top NFL quarterback prospect in college. "This is his football team," Strong said. He added: "He knows this, his team will only go as far as he takes them, and he understands that."
Bridgewater has plenty of help, including a glut of talent at wide receiver. The most tantalizing prospect is DeVante Parker, who reminds Strong of former Georgia star A.J. Green. Copeland led the Cardinals in receptions last year and freshman James Quick is full of promise; he's a blue-chip prospect who turned down offers from Ohio State and Alabama to stay close to home. The running game also got a boost with the addition of Michael Dyer, the troubled former Auburn star whose off-field issues submarined his career at both Auburn and Arkansas State. Strong had Dyer sign a zero-tolerance behavior contract.
Defensively, Louisville returns 12 players who've started, but that doesn't necessarily equate to success. Linebacker Preston Brown and safety Smith are stars, but Strong pointed to the defensive line as a unit that needs to show marked improvement. "We did an awful job," Strong said, "of stopping the run."
Louisville enters 2013 in a strange predicament, a team with high-major aspirations and a mid-major schedule. The Cardinals have a roster that can match up with college football's best, but they may not get that chance until January. Jurich said Louisville's schedule appeared OK as originally comprised, but it lost games with San Diego State, Boise State and TCU due to conference realignment shake-ups. When Jurich tried to scramble for a game to get the Cardinals exposure, no one bit.
"It was totally out of our control," he said. "We could have had a very nice schedule."
In many ways, Louisville's toughest opponent this season may be itself, as the glitz of the Heisman race, title chase and the NFL for many of its players are potential pitfalls in the hunt for a perfect season.
Louisville has come a long way since going 4-8 in 2009. And while the margin for error is thin, Strong has the Cardinals in position to where he and Jurich could end up in a long embrace on the sideline again this winter.
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