Next hire critical for Louisville's future

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich usually hasn't needed much of a search to find his next coach. After legendary basketball coach Denny Crum's forced resignation, Jurich famously called a news conference to announce he had one and only candidate: Rick Pitino. When Bobby Petrino left for the Atlanta Falcons, Jurich had Steve Kragthorpe lined up and ready to go within a couple of days.

This time around, as he seeks a replacement for Kragthorpe, Jurich said he hasn't zeroed in one guy but instead has a list of candidates in mind. There's no obvious coach out there who seems like a perfect fit for the Cardinals. But this might be the most important hire of Jurich's career.

Hovering over Kragthorpe's final, 4-8 season was the ever-growing second deck across from the home sideline at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. The expansion project will raise capacity by about 14,000 seats, to 56,000. This for a program that drew under 30,000 for a home game against Arkansas State on Halloween and had only 23,000 show up for the finale against Rutgers.

Jurich needs someone who can get the fan base excited again and sell all of those extra tickets. Louisville bills itself as "the best college sports town in America," but the program often has the feel of the city's only pro team, given the lack of a major student presence at either football or basketball games. And like a pro town, Louisville needs not just to win but to be entertained.

Cardinals fans loved the bluster of Howard Schnellenberger, the unpredictability of John L. Smith and the go-for-the-throat mentality of Petrino. One reason Kragthorpe never truly connected with fans was because his public speaking was as platitudinous as his style of play.

The next coach will have to unite a fan base that turned against Kragthorpe and even against Jurich during the past three years. Some of that will automatically happen because Kragthorpe was so disliked that the next guy can't help but be popular.

But he'll also have to win the news conferences, because winning on the field -- at least initially -- won't be easy. Louisville's roster next year won't have any obvious NFL players beyond perhaps the running back position. Jurich acknowledged it is now a rebuilding job, and improving the recruiting will be the top priority. A coach who can get the Cardinals back into their recruiting roots of Florida, Alabama and Georgia -- areas where Kragthorpe neglected as he turned his attention to Texas and California, with mixed results at best -- would also help. Not even Urban Meyer could turn this team into a Big East contender in 2010.

Of the most frequently mentioned candidates, Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and Houston coach Kevin Sumlin are the most intriguing. Strong would bring instant credibility as one of the architects of a potential three-time BCS champion. Sumlin has overseen one of the most potent offenses in the FBS the past two years and could get the Cardinals back to their high-scoring ways. Texas Tech's Mike Leach would be another dream hire, but with the school paying Kragthorpe more than $2 million to walk away and likely needing to offer Leach about $3 million, it could prove financially unfeasible.

Jurich said the program has to be fiscally responsible, but that he would be aggressive in whatever salary he offers the next coach. He might not be totally sure right now who that next guy is going to be. But he knows he has to get it right this time.