Conference Changes: Metro Flashback

As the University of Louisville makes the move to the ACC, Cardinal Authority provides a glimpse into the school's membership in prior conferences. The second of the four part series takes a quick look at the successes enjoyed in the Metro Conference from 1975-1995.

The Metro Conference was a very good home for the University of Louisville for much of their relationship, but the reorganization of football driven conferences created an environment of change during the leagues final years and multiple members came and went.

Following the departure of the Missouri Valley Conference, the school's football program chose the independent route, as were all the charter members of the Metro. In addition to Louisville, the new league's members were Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Memphis State, Saint Louis and Tulane. Future non-football conference mates would include Florida State, South Carolina, South Florida, Southern Miss, UNC-Charlotte, VCU and Virginia Tech.

The basketball programs of both the men and women enjoyed their greatest success to date. Denny Crum's teams during the 1980's were often described as the 'Dynasty of the Decade.' U of L's Olympic sports also began to enjoy regular success.

Trailed by Memphis and Cincinnati, Louisville was the most successful men's basketball program throughout the Metro's existence. The Cardinals won 12 regular season titles and 11 tournament championships during their 20-year run in the league.

Louisville would use their conference success as a springboard to the postseason. During the 20 year run in the Metro Conference, the U of L program became one of the, if not the, most dominate program in college hoops. The Cardinals won the NCAA title in 1980 and 1986, reached the Final Four four times and the Sweet 16 11 times, while compiling a 31-14 record in 16 NCAA Tournament appearances during that time frame.

Darrell Griffith
Darrell Griffith led the Cardinals to its first NCAA Championship in 1980. (UofL SID)
Darrell Griffith and Pervis Ellison, both of whom earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors after leading teams to national championships, each had their numbers retired by U of L. Lancaster Gordon, Rodney McCray, Derek Smith, Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner have all had their jerseys honored by the school. Griffith, Ellison, Gordon, along with Cliff Rozier and Rick Wilson were all selected as All-Americans during the Metro era.

Crum was named the Metro Conference Coach of the Year four times, multiple national Coach of the Year awards and in 1994 was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

While the Metro Conference didn't sponsor football, the gridiron Cardinals experienced some of the most memorable and key moments in the program's history during the Metro time span.

Highlighted by the Vince Gibson 'Red Rage' period and the rebirth of the program with Howard Schnellenberger, the Cardinals had four coaches during the years playing as an independent. Overshadowed by Gibson and Schnellenberger, Bob Webber and Ron Cooper also spent time coaching the Cardinals.

Howard Schnellenberger
Howard Schnellenberger
In 1977, Gibson directed the Cardinals to the Independence Bowl, just the third bowl appearance in school history. Schnellenberger, hired prior to the 1985 season, built a program that began to compete against the nation's best and in 1990 guided the Cardinals to a 10-1-1 season, a 34-7 thumping of Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl. The Cardinals would go bowling again in 1993, when they defeated Michigan State in the Liberty Bowl.

Former Cardinals Bruce Armstrong, Jeff Brohm, Ray Buchanan, Joe Jacoby, Frank Minnifield, Roman Oben, Ted Washington, Otis Wilson and Dwayne Woodruff all perfected their skill at U of L during the era and have since had their jerseys honored by the school.

The Cardinals began to enjoy regular success in more than just men's basketball and football during the Metro days.

Women's basketball, which didn't have a full scholarship team until the start of the Metro Conference in 1975, claimed 3 regular season titles and 5 tournament titles during the era.

Volleyball won it's first conference title in 1982 and added another in 1984. Under the direction of head coach Don Hardin, who was named the league's Coach of the Year in 1991, the Cardinals claimed 5 conference crowns in a row from 1990-95.

U of L track and field enjoyed success throughout the Metro membership. The school had 12 women's and 10 men's outdoor individual champions, and added another 11 combined indoor individual champions.

Baseball's most notable moment came in a game against Western Kentucky on March 24, 1976. Jim LaFountain put himself in the NCAA record books when he hit an NCAA record two grand slams in a single inning. He added a third grand slam later in the game to establish a new NCAA mark for slams in a game with three – a record that still stands. The 8 RBI in the inning is tied with others for the NCAA record, while his 14 RBI in the game is second in the NCAA record books. Showing it's first glimpse of success, the program won Metro divisional titles in 1983 and 1984, but was never able to break through.

Louisville's initial move to it's new league, Conference USA would be a bumpy one initially. A new athletic director would be hired, who would spark tremendous grown for the school's athletic department. The retirement of Hall of Famer Denny Crum and the hiring of Rick Pitino would create a resurgence for the men's basketball program. The departure of Schnellenberger, due to the decision to move football into a conference, saw the program take a brief dive before resurfacing as a conference title contender once again. Meanwhile, the school's other sponsored sports were continuing to build a winning tradition.

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