'Rebuilding process' continues at Louisville

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Two weeks ago, a big win over South Florida made Louisville 5-2 and had fans dreaming of an improbable Big East title. In response to a question on one of my weekly chats, I said Steve Kragthorpe was probably the frontrunner for league coach of the year.

Two ugly losses later, the Cardinals are just hoping to make it to any kind of bowl game, while fans have gone back to lambasting Kragthorpe on message boards and radio waves.

One man who hasn't been swayed by these shifts is Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich. Anyone who thinks Kragthorpe is in danger of losing his job simply doesn't understand the situation or Jurich's faith in his second-year coach. Jurich laid it out this summer at an athletics board meeting, when he said that the Cardinals were in a "rebuilding process" and added "the next two years ... I just want to get through them." He still feels that way.

"My expectations were not high this year because I knew the reality," Jurich said on Wednesday. "One thing I didn't want to do to the fans was lie to them.

"When I said we'd spend the next two years rebuilding, there was a lot of flack that came with it. Nobody wants to hear that. [But] it's a long haul and I knew that and I buckled up for it.

"It's hard for some people to hear that when one year you're going to the Orange Bowl and now you're not. Our fans are so new at this, they thought we'd be going to the Orange Bowl every week, but it's not like that."

Kragthorpe's relationship with the fan base has been tenuous at best at times during his tenure. He has gone 11-10 since taking over for Bobby Petrino after the 2007 Orange Bowl win. He has lost to Syracuse in consecutive years and has failed to beat his biggest rival, Kentucky, in two tries.

The phrase "rebuilding process" didn't make sense to those who saw Kragthorpe take over a 12-1 BCS team. Kragthorpe has attempted to manufacture a different type of program at Louisville, dismissing scores of players for various disciplinary infractions. Twenty underclassmen -- a full recruiting class -- left the team between the spring of 2007 and the start of camp this year for varying reasons.

"We're getting closer to where we want to be," Kragthorpe said Monday, "but certainly we've got to win more football games. That's my job."

This year's team has little depth or margin for error. It's no coincidence that the Cardinals' best game came when star receiver Scott Long was finally fully healthy. He caught two touchdown passes against South Florida after returning from a broken foot. His ability to stretch the field made things easier on everybody, especially quarterback Hunter Cantwell. A couple days later, Long tore his ACL in practice and was lost for the season. Louisville's passing game struggled in subsequent losses to Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

"An injury devastates this team," Jurich said. "A lot of times we don't have the next guy to go in, so we just have to shuffle guys around.

"It's not Steve's fault. He was left shorthanded; there's just no way around it. There's a reason Bobby left. It wasn't like we ran him out of here."

Not all Louisville fans agree with Jurich's assessment, and many take issue with the level of blame he assigns Petrino. It's no secret the two did not have a great personal relationship after Petrino's constant flirtations with other jobs.

I know this much: When I saw the Cardinals in the spring, they did not resemble a major-conference contender. They had two walk-ons starting at linebacker, and new defensive coordinator Ron English looked like he couldn't believe what he'd inherited.

I watched the Cardinals practice the first week of August and thought they'd be lucky to win four games. This team has some promising young players, like Victor Anderson, Doug Beaumont and Dexter Heyman, and English and his staff have worked wonders in making the defense respectable again. But the Cardinals still need some serious restocking at several positions.

Jurich said before the year that going 7-5 and making a bowl game would constitute a great year. That can still happen, but Louisville needs to win two of its last three in a challenging stretch. It starts Friday against Cincinnati, continues next week against West Virginia and ends at Rutgers.

"We're fighting for a decent bowl game this December," senior center Eric Wood said. "We don't want to stay home again.

"This is a team that, if we do what's right, mind our assignments and execute, we'll win ball games. But we're also realistic and know we're not good enough to not execute or do what supposed to do and still be able to win."

Cantwell said after the 41-7 loss at Pittsburgh that the team was at a crossroads. The Cardinals will show what they're made of in these final three games.

"I'm confident in this team right now," Kragthorpe said. "They're going to continue to fight and battle. Now we've just got to find a way to win a football game this week."

Regardless of how the 2008 season winds up, Jurich will continue to support his coach.

"It's a process and you've got to be patient," he said. "Nobody wants to be patient, and I understand that better than anybody.

"The coaches are handling this as well as they can, and I'm firmly behind them. Our president is firmly behind them. Everybody knew it was going to be a long haul."