The impact that former Cardinals wide receiver Deion Branch has had on the University of Louisville football program has been immeasurable. When he committed to the school following a two-year stint at Jones County Community College in Mississippi, where he earned All-American honors, he was coming into a program filled with hopes and aspirations.
Papa John's Cardinal Stadium was entering its third year of existance. There was no upper or party decks, but there was a real grass playing surface. The program was on the rebuild under head coach John L. Smith, with its sights on winning a Conference USA title. At the time, U of L was a place with high hopes, a spark of tradition and rapidly improving facilities. It had enjoyed success, but struggled with becoming a consistent winner on the field.
The native of Albany, Geo., played two seasons at Louisville, helping to establish that consistency. The team won back-to-back C-USA championships and compiled a record of 20-5 during his time. He was a two-time First Team All-Conference selection, set a Liberty Bowl receptions record and helped the Cardinals win 11 games for the first time in program history in 2001.
"It wasn't there when I signed," said Branch. "Me and my guys - Zek Parker, Dave Ragone, Chris Redman, Arnold Jackson - we kind of helped change that trend and it's been on the up and up ever since."
Prior to his arrival, U of L had won less than half of its games and had just seven bowl appearances in its history. It has been a different sort of history since, with the Cardinals winning nearly 70 percent of their games, which includes multiple major bowl victories.
"It's been great to see it grow," Branch told Cardinal Authority. "To see the transition to the things that Mr. Jurich said back in the day that would happen has been great to see. To see those things come to fruition, seeing the program grow and to see the coaches here help take that plan that Mr. Jurich had and push it to propel it forward is amazing."
The days of C-USA are long gone. Now a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, U of L is positioned to continue to develop and challenge for a national championship. The ACC membership also provides the national attention and revenue stream that will allow the school to continue to continually push the football program to new heights.
"Being in the ACC is excellent for exposure for the university and financially," he said. "Those are two important things. Financially for the community, for the City of Louisville and State of Kentucky."
The success that the football program has enjoyed over the past 15 years was only a portion of Tom Jurich's vision for the school's athletic programs. The goal was to strive for success in all sports, which has also become a reality and is something that Branch and former U of L athletes take pride in.
"When you are sitting at home and watching the NCAA's, and you're watching the women play, and instead of going somewhere you stay home because you're about to watch your university, there's a passion there," said Branch, who attended the Cardinals recent spring game. "I signed in 1999 and I still feel that passion, that same dislike for UK. It's a pleasure to see the success that all the teams are having."
Branch played 12 seasons in the NFL, winning a pair of Super Bowls with the New England Patriots. He was named the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXIX after hauling in 11 receptions for 133 yards.
Branch will return to Louisville next month to host his annual skills camp at St. X High School. The camp is June 6 and is open to ages 7-16. For more information, visit DeionBranchFoundation.org.