Why was Kragthorpe unable to continue the positive momentum that Louisville had been building since 1998? Here are the major reasons:
Coaching Staff Instability
It's hard to build stability in a program when there's a new coordinator every year. For the record, Kragthorpe had four different defensive coordinators and three offensive coordinators in three seasons. On defense, Mike Cassity was fired and replaced by Ron English. English left for Eastern Michigan and was replaced by Bill Miller. Miller went to Kansas before ever coaching a game as coordinator and was replaced by Brent Guy this season. Charlie Stubbs was replaced by Jeff Brohm, who was let go so Kragthorpe could assume the playcalling this season. That shuffling had an extremely negative effect on the team's performance on the field.
That constant staff turnover not only forced players to start over each year learning a new system and terminology, it also had a negative impact on recruiting. In three years, Kragthorpe never fielded a strong defense and the offensive production declined every year. In 2009, Louisville ranked last in the Big East in total offense and second to last in total defense.
One of Kragthorpe's biggest problems at Louisville was poor recruiting. There's no question the talent-level in the program now is significantly lower than it was when Kragthorpe took over in '07. Complicating the issue was the massive attrition during his first year. That forced Kragthorpe to seek a quick fix through the junior ranks, and many of those players didn't panned out. A glance at the 2009 roster reveals 18 junior college players, including nine starters.
Kragthorpe's 2008 recruiting class ranked seventh in the Big East and 54th nationally. In 2009, Kragthorpe signed the third worst recruiting class in the Big East and ranked 64th nationally. His 15 commitments this year is fifth-best in the league and 58th nationally.
While recruiting rankings should be taken with a large grain of salt, it's clear Louisville was losing ground on the recruiting front in the Big East and that lack of success was evident on the field against league opponents the past two seasons. Kragthorpe also didn't meet his program's recruiting needs, particularly on the defensive line. In three seasons, Kragthorpe signed only five high school lineman who arrived on campus. Kragthorpe also failed to recruit an NFL-caliber quarterback to a program that has produced six NFL quarterbacks in the past 20 years.
High Attrition Rate
Kragthorpe lost more than 25 players from Louisville's program during three seasons, including talented young players like running back Anthony Allen, defensive back Latarrius Thomas, and defensive end Peanut Whitehead. Allen scored 14 touchdowns as a freshman in 2006 and set the Louisville single-game rushing record as a sophomore before transferring to Georgia Tech. Thomas and Whitehead were starters on the Orange Bowl championship squad. Whitehead had his career cut short by injury his sophomore season and Thomas transferred to Eastern Michigan with two seasons of eligibility left.
The player dismissals, defections, and injuries had a negative impact on the Cardinals depth at several key positions, including defensive line and in the secondary. It also directly led to Kragthorpe's decision to recruit large numbers of junior college prospects, almost always a recipe for failure in a conference as difficult as the Big East.
Kragthorpe couldn't help himself with fans. He made countless missteps in public relations matters and it cost him immensely in fan support. The 'doing it the right way' and 'cleaning up Bobby Petrino's mess' lines didn't sit well with many fans. Kragthorpe also hurt himself with a veil of secrecy surrounding the football program. His decisions not to discuss player injuries or depth chart issues during his first season irritated many fans. When he decided to close down spring practice in year two and limited access to fall camp to only two days this year Kragthorpe further alienated the schools loyal followers.
The SMU flirtation after a poor first season cost Kragthorpe considerable credibility, and his decision to fire Jeff Brohm, reassign Greg Brohm out of football office and his mis-communication with the Kentucky High School coaches last summer angered a large segment of Cardinal football supporters.
Big East Failure
Tom Jurich expects all of his coaches to compete for league titles. Call it a major requirement of his head coaches. In three years, Kragthorpe never had a winning record in the Big East. His 5-16 league record didn't please fans who expect to compete for the Big East title on a regular basis. There were several lopsided conference defeats, including South Florida in '07, Rutgers in '08 and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati this year. Not only did Kragthorpe's teams fail to challenge for the Big East title, but often times weren't competitive with league members. In three seasons, Kragthorpe won only once on the road in league action and he didn't have a winning record against any team, including 0-3 records against UConn and West Virginia. Kragthorpe's lack of success in the Big East was a significant factor in his failed tenure.
More empty seats in the stadium than occupied seats is always a huge problem for a head coach. That happened to Steve Kragthorpe often during his final season. Against Arkansas State, Louisville had only 21,497 in attendance, the worst attended contest in PJCS history. Kragthorpe was in trouble on the ticket front before the season ever started. With season ticket sales lagging, the athletic department pulled out all the stops and exhausted their waiting list to sell their season ticket allotment. This season, crowds were late arriving from the start of the season and the stands emptied during the second half against Pittsburgh and Southern Miss.
To sell tickets this year, UofL was forced to sell discounted tickets and enlist corporate support to fill seats. If Kragthorpe's future hadn't already been decided it probably was after Arkansas State. Revenue from football ticket sales and donations, parking and game-day concessions are the lifeblood for any athletic department. There's no question Louisville took a financial hit in 2009. The fact that UofL has 15,000 additional seats to sell in an expanded stadium next season probably is the overriding factor for change.