Conference Changes: C-USA Flashback

As the University of Louisville makes the move to the ACC, Cardinal Authority provides a glimpse into conference past. The third installment of the four part series takes a quick look at the successes enjoyed in Conference USA from 1995-2005.

A founding member of Conference USA, the University of Louisville began play in the new league in 1995 and would call it home for a decade.

Joining Louisville in the 12 team league were: Charlotte, Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette, Memphis, Saint Louis, South Florida, Southern Miss, Tulane, and UAB. Houston was also a founding institution but didn't begin play in C-USA until 1996.

Rick Pitino led Louisville to only C-USA regular season title in 04-05.
The decade spent in Conference USA was a time of amazing growth for the University of Louisville athletic programs. Two years in, Tom Jurich was lured away from Colorado State to replace a retiring Bill Olsen and went to work immediately to make sure that the university met the new gender equity requirements, improve facilities and find a few head coaches that would help fulfill his desire to create programs that win.

The long overdue move from Old Cardinal Stadium to the on-campus 42,000 seat Papa John's Cardinal Stadium became the football program's new home in 1998. The facility, which sparked a building boom for U of L athletics, brought with it an period of significant growth for the Cardinals football program. It's a period that continued throughout the C-USA era and continues today.

One of the many key moments during Jurich's on-going tenure came early on when he replaced Ron Cooper, who went just 13-20 in three seasons as head coach, with John L. Smith as the program moved into the new stadium. After three seasons in his first Division I head coaching job at Utah State, Smith proved quick to rebuild. In his first season he transformed a 1-10 team the year prior into one that finished the season with a winning record and a spot in the 1998 Motor City Bowl.

Smith directed the Cardinals for 5 seasons, compiling a 41-21 record while claiming the program's first conference title since winning the 1972 Missouri Valley Conference race. The Cardinals would win C-USA twice during his tenure and reach a bowl game every season. The best finish was in 2001 when the Cardinals finished 10-2, defeated No. 19 BYU 28-10 in the Liberty Bowl and ended the season ranked No. 17 in the final AP Top 25.

Smith's departure for Michigan State opened the door for former Cardinals offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino to take the program to an even higher level. Making his head coaching debut, Petrino's first two seasons at Louisville were in Conference USA, a league he'd dominate before the school departed for it's next home. The Cardinals compiled a 20-5 record during those seasons. The 2004 squad outscored conference foes by an average of 37 points while compiling an 11-1 record. The Cardinals capped their final year in C-USA with a 44-40 win over No. 10 Boise State in the Liberty Bowl and finished No. 6 in the final AP Top 25.

Three of the football program's best at their positions, wide receiver Deion Branch, cornerback Sam Madison, and quarterback Chris Redman have had their jerseys honored by the school. Redman and quarterback Dave Ragone (3 times) were named the league's Offensive Player of the Year, while linebacker Tyrus McCloud (twice) and DeWayne White both earned Defensive Player of the Year honors. 79 Cardinals earned All-Conference honors during the decade of C-USA play, with Anthony Floyd, Ibn Green, Bobby Leffew and Sam Madison each earning 1st Team All-American accolades.

Arguably the most important coaching transitions in the university's history occurred in 2001.

After 30 years on the bench, Denny Crum announced he'd retire following the season. Crum's tenure with the Cardinals ranks among the best-ever careers in college basketball history. The 3-time National Coach of the Year delivered 2 NCAA Championships, 6 Final Fours, and 16 Sweet 16 appearances during his career. After dominating the Missouri Valley and Metro Conferences, a C-USA title eluded Crum. However, known for always having his teams prepared for post season play, the Cardinals reached a pair of NCAA Sweet 16's and an Elite 8 during his six years in the league. He completed his career with a 675–295 record.

DeJuan Wheat, who guided the Cardinals to a Sweet 16 and Elite 8 appearance during his final two seasons, has had his jersey honored by the university. Wheat was the first player in NCAA history with career totals of at least 2,000 points, 450 assists, 300 three-point goals, and 200 steals.

Understanding the need to find a top-of-line replacement, Jurich targeted the best possible candidate. In a move that would shake the foundation of Bluegrass State, former Boston Celtics and University of Kentucky head coach Rick Pitino spurned an offer from Michigan to become Louisville's next head coach.

Year one under Pitino, who would coach four seasons in C-USA, would be a difficult one. The rebuilding Cardinals finished 19-13 and played in the NIT, reaching the second round in 2001. The Cardinals would compile a 78-14 over the next three seasons. Louisville won the Conference USA title in 2004-05, its final year in the league, and would go on to reach the school's first Final Four since winning the 1986 title. The Cardinals also won the C-USA Tournament in 2003 and 2005.

Taquan Dean & Francisco Garcia
Taquan Dean and Francisco Garcia played significant roles in returning the Cardinals to the Final Four and both, along with DeJuan Wheat, earned All-American honors during the Conference USA era.

Women's basketball claimed three C-USA regular season titles and made 5 NCAA Tournament appearances. 11 different players earned All-Conference honors and a pair of coaches – Bud Childers and Martin Clapp – both earned C-USA Coach of the Year honors.

Under the direction of Lelo Prado, who compiled a 320-301-1 record at U of L, the Cardinals baseball team reached an NCAA Regional in 2002. Mark Jurich (twice), Carlos Fernandez and Zach Johnson all earned All-American honors during the C-USA days.

Women's Cross Country won the program's first conference title in 1996, as did men's tennis in 2000, softball in 2004. Swimming and Diving athletes earned 11 individual conference titles, while the women's indoor and outdoor athletes claimed an impressive 19 individual C-USA titles.

Volleyball continued to develop an elite program, claiming 6 regular season and 4 tournament championships.

Fueled by the growing success of the school's many sports, U of L would make another conference move prior to the 2006 season. The new home in the Big East Conference would provide even greater challenges. Competition in all sports across the board would be greater than previous leagues. BCS bowl games, Final Fours, the College World Series and national champions among the olympic sports programs would be in the near future for the Cardinals.

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