Gridiron Cards Own Commonwealth

With four victories over in-state rival Kentucky the last five years, it's clear football power in the Commonwealth resides with the Louisville Cardinals. With UofL's recent dominance in the series, UK's Mitch Barnhart has been openly discussing ideas to help turn the tide for his probation-riddled Wildcats.

In June 1993, former University of Louisville Head Coach Howard Schnellenberger, then Athletic Director Bill Olsen and their University of Kentucky counterparts, Bill Curry and C.M. Newton, signed a six year agreement between the two schools to play football against one another for the first time since 1924, ending a span of seventy years without a game between the commonwealth's top football programs.

"It's very important to our program," Schnellenberger said of the rivalry game in 1994. "But [it's] even more important to the sport of football in our state. I feel very special about the UK game and our team feels honored to be part of the renewal of the series."

Since the first Battle of the Bluegrass in 1994, Louisville has opened the state-of-the-art, 42,000 seat Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, while Kentucky has expanded Commonwealth Stadium to seat over 67,000. Both teams have benefited from the exposure generated by ESPN2, which has televised the past two contests and ticket sales from the game increase each schools coffers immensely. The overall play at the high school level has also increased throughout the state, as ten Kentucky high school stars have been named to the prestigious Parade All-American Team since 1994, including UK's Tim Couch, and U of L's Chris Redman, Eric Shelton, Montrell Jones and Michael Bush.

The game has had a dramatic impact on how football is viewed in the Commonwealth by fans and media alike, and has significantly raised interest and expectations for the sport. Before the series resumed, most fans in the state wanted to talk about basketball or its sister sport, basketball recruiting, during the hot and hazy summer months prior to the kickoff of the football season. Since 1994, however, interest in the annual opening contest for both programs has reached new levels and both schools have benefited from the by-products of the game.

Since dropping the inaugural Battle of the Bluegrass to the Wildcats, 20-14, the University of Louisville has proven its dominance on the gridiron, having claimed six of the past nine Governor's Cup Trophies, including four of the past five contests. The Cards won this season's showdown with an impressive 40-24 victory over the Cats Labor Day Weekend in Lexington to usher in the Bobby Petrino era at the University of Louisville.

During it last four wins in the series, the Cards have used an exciting and potent offense, an athletic and effective defense and excellent special team's play, including a crucial blocked field goal attempt to force overtime in 2000, in proving its superiority over the Wildcats on the gridiron. In those four victories, Louisville outscored the Lexington-based felines, 172-96, and claimed three of the four victories on the Wildcats home turf at Commonwealth Stadium.

And with the Cards success the during the past five seasons against the Cats, Kentucky Head Coach Rich Brooks and Athletic Director Mitch Barnhardt have begun discussing, through the media, ideas to move the game from its traditional Labor Day weekend scheduling that has proven extremely beneficial since 1994 to a date later in the season. Kentucky officials talk about moving the game from the opening weekend of the season has fueled speculation that the Cats would rather not play the game at all and are looking for a way out of the annual series that the Cards have dominated in recent years.

Are Kentucky and Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart scared to play Louisville?

"I'd rather have a game or two under my belt," Brooks said explaining his preference for moving the annual game with Louisville to later in the season. "I think when you play your rival, particularly when it's an in-state rival, you're playing for the rest of the year because whoever wins the game has to live with that school in that state the rest of the year. And when you lose it, it's not a lot of fun."

Clealy the U of L side wants the game as the opener and for good reason.

"We want it as our opener," Petrino countered. "We enjoy the fact that we get to prepare for [the game] all winter long in the weight room and in conditioning. We look forward to it. I think basically you have two seasons. You have that first season, which is that rivalry game, and then you've got to put it behind you, win or lose, and move on to the rest of the season. I know that it has generated a lot of excitement throughout the state all summer long."

Since the series' renewal, the Cardinal football program's success on the field has dwarfed that of the Wildcat's program, who have enjoyed just two winning seasons since 1994. By contrast, the Cards have enjoyed winning seasons during seven of nine seasons since the inaugural contest, posting losing records only during the last two season's of the Ron Cooper era, and have participated in five consecutive bowl games dating to the 1998 Motor City Bowl.

While the Kentucky program has been highlighted by scandal and instability over the past decade, the Cardinal program has claimed two Conference USA Championships, the 2001 Liberty Bow, season ending national rankings, victory over national power and fourth ranked Florida State in 2002, and have placed dozens of players in the National Football League, including Dave Ragone, Sam Madison and Dwayne White and have routinely played in front of national television audiences on ESPN and ESPN2, including six times in 2001 and an incredible seven appearances in 2002.

Because of its on-field success over the past decade, it's willingness to finance and construct top-notch facilities and the university administration's first-rate commitment to playing at the highest level of college football during the past decade, the Cardinal football program is widely viewed as an exciting and attractive program on the rise nationally. Former Cardinal and NFL quarterback and current Louisville quarterback coach Jeff Brohm, who graduated the season before the first game against Kentucky in 1994, has witnessed the transformation and upgrade in the university's commitment towards the football program.

"Obviously it's a huge plus to play in a great state of the art stadium," Brohm said. "It's great for the kids to have great practice fields, a great weight room, training facility and locker rooms. This place, in my opinion, as far as for the players with the training room, weight room, meeting room and the study hall rooms, is one of the top ten in the country. I think it's a huge plus for recruits to come in here and see this facility."

And the additions of football facilities to improve the allure of the Cardinal football program aren't finished just yet. On the drawing board is an indoor practice facility that will sit adjacent to the current practice fields north of the football complex that will allow the gridiron Cards to practice indoors during the cold weather months while the team is undergoing bowl preparation and winter workouts.

"There will be a new indoor football practice facility that will be adjacent to the stadium," Louisville AD Tom Jurich promised during the annual football kickoff luncheon at the Kentucky International Convention Center in August. "We're working currently on the fundraising for that."

The Cards have also prospered in this rivalry despite facing obstacles related to its exclusion from the Bowl Coalition Series. While playing in Conference USA since 1995 as a non-member of the exclusive BCS, the Cards have remarkably claimed superiority over the Cats on the gridiron even though Kentucky has enjoyed BCS status as a member of the Southeastern Conference. Despite facing recruiting and other obstacles related to its conference affiliation that Kentucky simply hasn't had to deal with because of their membership in the powerful Southeastern Conference, the Cards have built their program with strong recruiting efforts in the south, often finding unheralded football players, like Michael Josiah and Dwayne White, and coaching them into NFL caliber players. Most of the Louisville players have used the perceived "underdog" label as motivation during the off-season while preparing for the opening game against the Cats to their advantage.

However, the advantages the UK program has enjoyed during the past several seasons because of its conference affiliation are nearly history. With Miami (FL.) and Virginia Tech's exit from the Big East Conference effective in 2004, the door has been opened for the Cards to replace one of those two powers in the Big East, a BCS conference. With membership in the Big East, the Louisville coaching staff can, for the first time since the inception of the BCS, tell recruits they will have the opportunity to play for the national championship each and every year at the University of Louisville. And as the second program in the Commonwealth with access to the BCS, Louisville now appears on equal recruiting ground with Kentucky, as the Wildcats main leverage, BCS inclusion, with prospects having been erased.

And the future looks extremely promising with Coach Petrino at the helm of the Cardinal program. His exciting brand of football combined with BCS inclusion as members of the Big East Conference should only elevate the level of prospects the Cardinal football program can attract on a yearly basis. With standouts Eric Shelton, Broderick Clark and Michael Bush still early in their college careers, the talent level at U of L is as high as ever before and the Cards dominance over in-state rival Kentucky should continue for the foreseeable future. And as the presumptive favorite for the nation's top ranked high school quarterback, Trinity senior Brian Brohm, the Cards would have the type of player under center who could help the program make the rise to the next level and join the nation's elite with his talent and ability should he sign with Louisville next February.

Brohm could take Cards to next level. (ITV)
"Louisville is close to the top right now," Brohm told recently. "I would like to play for a coach who knows me well, obviously he [UofL Quarterback Coach Jeff Brohm, Brian's brother] does which is a big plus for them [U of L]. If Louisville switches conferences it would be a big plus because they would be in the BCS. That's a big plus for any program. It gives them a chance to compete for the national title."

Regardless of Brohm's pending college decision, Cardinal football dominance in the Commonwealth appears just getting started and with the jump to the Big East Conference looming in the near future and recruiting fortunes looking bright, it might take the probation-wrecked Wildcat program several years just to catch up on the gridiron with the Cards!

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