Billy Reed: Bowl-bound Cards’ turnaround happened faster than expected

Billy Reed: Bowl-bound Cards’ turnaround happened faster than expected
Billy Reed

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - If you’re a University of Louisville football fan still waiting to exhale, you can breathe again.

A mini-miracle has taken place this fall. The Cardinals are not only back to respectability, they’re bowl-bound for heaven’s sake.

A year ago, this would have seemed impossible. The program had completely fallen apart, and head coach Bobby Petrino couldn’t get out of town fast enough. No so-called “name” coach would want to step into this smoldering wreckage.

So there was a lot of antipathy when Athletics Director Vince Tyra announced that he had hired Scott Satterfield of Appalachian State to replace Petrino. Nobody knew much about him. But nobody could complain too much because who better could the Cards hire?

The mess left by Petrino was so ugly that all except the most impatient fans figured it would take at least two seasons, maybe three, to repair the damage. More than 20 players had left the program. Recruiting was a struggle. The ticket-buying public was disenchanted and distressed.

Satterfield lacked the presence of, oh, Howard Schnellenberger. He just seemed like a relatively humble, hard-working guy who relished the challenge of teaching and building. He brought with him a staff of like-minded coaches. They promised only that the team would work hard to be competitive.

The first question to be answered was whether the 2-10 debacle of 2018 was due mainly to a lack of talent or a coaching staff that lost the team, for still-unknown reasons. Satterfield quickly discovered the problem wasn’t the players. They had the talent and needed only a serious attitude adjustment.

At halftime of the season-opening loss to Notre Dame, says Satterfield, he felt good about his team and its future. He didn’t say it out loud, of course. He and his staff just kept working to make the players better, and soon enough their improvement, especially on offense, was obvious to most observers.

Quarterback Micale Cunningham, who got the starting job when Jawon Pass was injured, improved his passing to the point that he did a decent Lamar Jackson impersonation. Freshman running back Javian Hawkins gained more than 1,000 yards. An offensive line led by Mekhi Becton (6-foot-7, 369 pounds) gave Cunningham enough time to seek out his trio of outstanding wide receivers – Chatarias Atwell, Seth Dawkins, and Dez Fitzpatrick.

At various times players such as freshman quarterback Evan Conley came from off the bench, or somewhere, to give the team just what it needed in desperate moments.

So heading into Saturday’s home game against Syracuse, the team nobody thought could win more than two or three games is 6-4 and eligible for a bowl. Whatever happens against Syracuse or Kentucky on Nov. 30 in Lexington, this season already is a rousing success that should be celebrated Saturday.

It’s not unreasonable to think the Cards can win their last two, making them – ready for this? – 8-4 for the regular season. It is perhaps the most incredible turn-around in UofL history, given how toxic last season ended.

Tyra reportedly is working on a new contract for Satterfield, who should be the Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year and at least a contender for the national honor. And don’t forget that while he has been busy rebuilding the Cards, his former program at Appalachian State has spent most of the season ranked in the Top 25.

Many Cards fans have been holding their collective breath all season, waiting for the team to collapse. But it didn’t. It got better. Any lingering vestiges of Petrinoism were washed away. It’s perfectly fine now to begin feeling good about the future.

The final record will dictate where the Cards will play their bowl game. But it really doesn’t matter, does it? All that matters is that the team will play in a bowl far quicker than even the most rabid fan could have imagined.

I think back to what former Governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler said about Fran Curci’s 5-6 season in 1973, his first as the inept John Ray’s successor at UK. “Tell that boy to unpack his bags,” Chandler said.

I think that’s exactly what UofL should say to Satterfield and his staff.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter and regular contributor of sports columns to WAVE3.com. Contact him at billyreedcolumns@gmail.com.

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