Andy Higgs could have been bronzed, put in a museum and titled the Sulker. Elbow on knee, chin on wrist, Higgs, a Louisville defensive tackle, sat on a stool in the middle of an otherwise deserted locker room after the Cardinals' 30-21 loss last Saturday to West Virginia. It made no difference to Higgs that others, including his own coach, regarded the outcome as a moral victory. His eyes were moist, and every so often he would shake his head in disbelief. "That guy is incredible," said Higgs. "He is for real. He is a leader of men."
This is an article from the Oct. 2, 1989 issue
That guy was Mountaineer quarterback Major Harris, whose Houdini-like escapes from Higgs and his cohorts were all that prevented Louisville from pulling off a major upset. The once moribund Cardinals had played a Top 20 team tough, and for the second time in four games West Virginia, which is 4-0, had to rally in the fourth quarter to defeat an unranked team. "Last year we played for a national championship, so this year we have a big X on our chest," said Mountaineer coach Don Nehlen, whose team lost to No. 1-ranked Notre Dame in last season's Fiesta Bowl. Nehlen implied that Louisville had played well over its head. "Can they play that kind of emotion-pitched football every week?" he said. Nehlen ought to be asking himself some more fundamental questions, such as, How long can Harris compensate for an inconsistent offensive line and a pliable defense?
Between his broken-field runs and radar-guided, across-the-body aerials, Harris had a hand in 318 of West Virginia's 471 yards against Louisville. But the most remarkable Harris stat was the number of times he was sacked—once, for a loss of three yards. Considering that Cardinals defenders spent much of the game gnawing on his ankles, Harris ought to have gone down at least as many times as his Louisville counterpart, Browning Nagle, who was sacked four times. The Cardinals' defensive ends lined up "cocked" (at an angle) and rushed hard. But even when they beat their blockers, they couldn't catch the elusive Harris.
Harris thrives on chaos. No matter that all five of his offensive linemen from last season are gone; no matter that their replacements have yet to jell. Harris's completion percentage swells when the play is broken and he can feel the breath of a blitzing linebacker, when his receivers are improvising and the field has become his private sandlot. Of the 16 passes Harris completed on Saturday, five were thrown while he was in the grasp of at least one defender. "When I'm back to pass, I'm looking down-field," said Harris. "I'm not paying attention to what's going on around me."
"He threw a few out of the well, and his receivers came up with them," said Louisville coach Howard Schnellenberger, whose postgame remarks hardly sounded like those of a losing coach. "So we lost our virginity today," he said of his 2-1 team. "No one expected us to go undefeated—except maybe me, in the deepest recesses of my mind."
Schnellenberger was tickled that his Cardinals had kept the score close. The day before the game, he noted that the Mountaineers were 11-point favorites and said, "I think the oddsmakers have it pegged just about right." After watching Nagle—who was playing with a badly sprained right big toe and could not scramble—throw four straight incompletions to kill Louisville's last chance to win, Schnellenberger said, "If you think you're going to get me to say one negative thing about this team, you're mistaken. This was one of the finest college football games in the country this week, and it happened right here in Louisville, Kentucky."
When Schnellenberger arrived in Louisville five years ago, after having won the national championship at Miami, Cardinals football was so bad that the people in charge of ticket sales avoided referring to their product as football. "We'd sell the band, the atmosphere, the game as a social event," says athletic director Bill Olsen of those dark days. "We called it fallball." Hey, Kentuckians! Hoops season's just around the corner, so why not take in some fallball and limber up your vocal cords!
By hiring Schnellenberger, Louisville proclaimed it was serious about turning its football program around. At Miami, Schnellenberger was an unyielding taskmaster, and he was not about to go easy on his new charges. After his first spring practice 30 players left the team. "We hit so much I had difficulty eating and getting to classes," says one survivor, former defensive back Jeff Pointer. "We would practice for three hours, and if we did something to displease him, he'd make us start practice over."
Louisville won a total of eight games in Schnellenberger's first three seasons, before turning the corner with last year's 8-3 record. Losses that particularly galled Schnellenberger often resulted in Sunday morning practices—most of them in full pads.
Louisville's first game under Schnellenberger was at West Virginia; the Mountaineers won 52-13. So Schnellenberger preferred to view last Saturday's nine-point defeat from a look-how-far-we've-come perspective. "This was a one-point game," he said, pointing out that West Virginia's final touchdown came with 1:26 remaining, after the issue had been decided. "The fact that we did not win does not detract from the event."
The event—the Cardinals' home opener—was the thing. Temporary seats were added, and the game was the first sellout in Cardinal Stadium football history. The Cardinals even outdrew the Rolling Stones, who played the 35,500-seat stadium the previous Tuesday. On Saturday two helicopters landed on the field before kickoff. The first discharged Louisville's redbird mascot, the second honorary team captains Johnny Unitas (Louisville, '55) and Sam Huff (West Virginia, '56).
The event had to be the thing because few suspected that Louisville could stay with the Mountaineers. If Schnellenberger started from scratch in Miami, he started from below scratch in Louisville, and he has gone about assembling a contender the same way he did with the Hurricanes: with refugees, reprobates, rejects and retreads. For instance:
•Higgs is from the Bahamas. After attending Kiski Prep outside Pittsburgh and tearing up his shoulder, he received no offers from major colleges. So, heeding an uncle from Minnesota who said, "Louisville is a nice town," he decided to walk on. Forty-eight hours into Schnellenberger's two-a-days, Higgs walked off. "It was tougher than anything I'd ever done," says Higgs. "I checked into a motel for two days. They called me and talked me into coming back." Two weeks later he was offered a scholarship.
•Starting left tackle Jerry Crafts transferred from Oklahoma just before this season. Craft, who wants to play pro ball, was worried that his pass-blocking skills were stagnating at Oklahoma, which runs an option offense. Because the Sooners are on probation, Crafts did not have to sit out a year.
•Carwell Gardner transferred from Kentucky after the '87 season. Despite earning All-SEC honors as a defensive end for the Wildcats, Gardner wore out his welcome in Lexington with a series of disciplinary lapses. "I did everything wrong," says Gardner, "but I got all that wild stuff out of my system." Schnellenberger has switched Gardner to fullback, and he has 238 yards on 46 carries. Gardner undoubtedly would have more yardage if he did not seek out defensive players to hit.
•Ted Washington, a 6'5", 290-pound junior defensive tackle, and a likely future NFL star, arrived at Louisville almost by accident. "I liked the place when I visited," he says. And where else did you visit? "Nowhere." Why? "I wrestled in high school, and I usually had matches on weekends, which is when you go on campus visits. But the weekend Louisville asked me, I didn't have a meet." So if McNeese State had invited you on that weekend, you probably would have signed with McNeese State? "Probably."
•Nagle's route to Louisville meandered through Morgantown, W.Va., lending another subplot to Saturday's game. In the spring of '87, Nehlen decided to install a mobile offense tailored to Harris's myriad gifts. The other redshirt freshman quarterback on campus was Nagle, who is a drop-back passer. "I got the message," says Nagle, who left West Virginia in the summer of 1987. Pondering his next stop, he recalled that Louisville had recruited him out of Clearwater, Fla. He also remembered Schnellenberger's words to him at the time. According to Nagle, Schnellenberger said, "I hear you're going to West Virginia. Well, I think we've established a good relationship, so if things don't work out for you there, keep us in mind."
Thanks to that gracious gesture and to his reputation as a groomer of NFL quarterbacks—Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar and Vinny Testaverde all played for him at Miami—Schnellenberger found Nagle on his doorstep. Coming into last week's game, Nagle had thrown for 438 yards and four touchdowns in the Cardinals' wins over Wyoming and Kansas. On Saturday he led Louisville on touchdown drives of 49 and 80 yards in the first half, and only a bit of Harris magic kept Louisville from taking a 14-3 lead into the locker room at halftime. Late in the half Harris marched the Mountaineers 91 yards in 4:09. On the 11th play of the drive, with first-and-10 from the Louisville 23, Harris dropped back and was immediately clotheslined by Dan Gangwer. Somehow Harris eluded him and, with linebacker Mark Sander's arms wrapped around his shoe tops, released an off-balance flutterball, which was caught by a diving Greg Dykes in the end zone. "We'd come so close to sacking him, I'd yell, 'Yeah—got him!' " said Higgs. "Next thing you know, some guy's caught the ball 20 yards downfield, and they're moving the chains."
Nagle answered Harris's heroics by engineering a smart scoring drive to open the second half. After that march, however, the Mountaineers started "twisting" linemen and linebackers—looping them through odd gaps and snarling Louisville's blocking schemes. The scheme worked, and Nagle was dropped for 40 yards in losses in the second half and suffered that toe injury. The Cardinals would muster a paltry five first downs the rest of the way.
But the Cardinals, who won four games last season on last-minute heroics, had vowed before Saturday's game that if the score was close in the fourth quarter they would find a way to win. Trailing 22-21 with 2:49 on the clock, Louisville took over on its own 37. But on his damaged toe, Nagle could not find the mark, and West Virginia took over on downs. Two plays later tailback Eugene Napoleon went off right tackle for a 46-yard touchdown.
Nagle assumed the blame for the loss. "My ineffectiveness in the fourth quarter was the key," he said. "They were good, but they were not better than us."
That's a debatable statement, which at Louisville is a sign of progress. Not long ago it would have been a ludicrous statement. That is the difference between Schnellenberger and his predecessors at Louisville. It is the difference between football and fallball.