LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- On a piece of paper taped above the University of Louisville football museum inside the Howard Schnellenberger Complex is a quote from Mike Ditka:
"Before you can win, you have to believe you are worthy."
The word "believe" is in all caps, in bold red type.
It's a theme U of L coach Charlie Strong has been hammering home all week as the Cardinals prepare to face the No. 3-ranked Florida Gators as heavy underdogs in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 2.
In some ways, it's a theme Strong has been hitting since before the season started. After both of the team's first two practices, and in fact at its preseason media day, Strong referenced the high expectations for his team.
"You've had this expectation of champions put on you," he told his team after the first practice of the season, "Now it's time to act like champions, to practice like champions, carry yourselves like champions, work like champions, play like champions and see if you can go be champions."
And for the most part this season, the Cardinals did. They won a share of the Big East championship, and did what they were expected to do -- reach a BCS bowl.
They also did less than they were expected to do at times. They were rarely dominant, didn't blow many opponents away, and needed a performance for the history books from Teddy Bridgewater to avoid falling flat in their season finale at Rutgers.
If Strong is looking for bulletin board material, he has no shortage. On consecutive nights last week, ESPNU ran BCS preview programs that gave the Cards little chance against the Gators. On the ESPNU Film Room previewing U of L-Florida, former Oregon coach Mike Belotti raved about Teddy Bridgewater's arm and abilities, but found little way the Cards could cope with Florida's defense. A night later on the ESPNU BCS Preview Show none of the panelists could conceive a scenario in which U of L played close to the Gators.
"They're going to say that just because of who we are and the respect they have for Florida, and they're in the Southeastern Conference and we're in the Big East," Strong said. "I tell (players) not to worry about all that, because you've still got to play the game."
Instead of an appeal to the emotions of an underdog, Strong said he's urging his players -- as he did at the beginning of the season -- to have the confidence of a team that belongs.
"What our players have to understand is we've won 10 football games ourselves and we have us a good football team," Strong said. "We know we're going to respect their program because they were one game away from playing in the national championship game. But our players have to understand, you know what, you're in this position, you worked hard enough to get in this position, and now you have a chance to show everybody across the country just where this program is."
Three years ago, Strong was on the Superdome sidelines coaching the defense of a Florida team that was pummeling Cincinnati. At that point, knowing where U of L was, he never dreamed he'd be back three seasons later on the opposite sideline from Florida.
"It's 12 teams that have a chance to go to a BCS bowl and we're one of the 12," Strong said. He said he told his players, "It is a great opportunity and you guys have worked hard, you deserve to be there because you won the conference. It seems like just yesterday I was there at the Sugar Bowl and we were playing Cincinnati and it's just three years later and I'm getting ready to go back, but I think our players are grateful. ... What I said to them, just enjoy this moment also for yourselves."
Strong will send his players home for Christmas after one more practice on the 21st, then they'll return to campus on Dec. 26th and leave for New Orleans on the 27th (WDRB will be there with coverage from the time the plane touches down).
As for their brief holiday break, Strong will send his players home for the holiday with one, simple message: Believe.