LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It began, really, at the end of World War II with Frank Camp and games at old Parkway Field. Johnny Unitas came into his first college football game with the University of Louisville trailing 19-0 and nearly led the comeback in a 22-21 loss.
There were difficult days. The program was in jeopardy a few times, but the school's faculty and administration thought too much of Camp to pull the trigger.
Lee Corso had his moments. He had never been a head coach until Louisville hired him in 1969. He took the Cardinals to a bowl game in 1970, and was gone two seasons later.
There were years at Cardinal Stadium. Athletic director Bill Olsen worked some magic. He landed Howard Schnellenberger, who established a foothold at the Fairgrounds behind its baseball stadium. Free tickets at convenience stores. Playing anybody, anytime, anywhere. When he led the Cardinals to a Fiesta Bowl win over Alabama, people started to believe him.
A collision course with a national championship, he said. The only variable was time.
And maybe money. A stadium, Schnellenberger's grand vision, wasn't completed until after he was gone. On the site of an environmentally toxic brownfield. Ninety years of rail yard dumping, a million gallons of diesel fuel, oil, solvents, lye, 18,000 parts per million of lead, 47 environmental contaminants. Here on this place where people used to be able to catch a train, the program would look to leave the station.
Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. For the first time, the program played in a facility that wasn't built for baseball, or some other activity. A statue of Johnny Unitas presides. A new athletic director, Tom Jurich, arrived. He brought John L. Smith, a cowboy who turned loose Chris Redman at quarterback. The Cardinals started playing weeknight games. It wasn't good for tailgating, but it was good for publicity. America was watching. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Bowl games every season.
From Missouri Valley to near extinction to Conference USA to the Big East. Bobby Petrino took the Cardinals to the Orange Bowl in 2007, then left for the NFL. The momentum slammed to a halt for three seasons under Steve Kragthorpe, then roared back under Charlie Strong.
Somehow, a bowl game his first season. Teddy Bridgewater arrived in his second. The Cardinals won the Sugar Bowl, beat Florida, in his third.
Now comes his fourth.
"You cannot think you've arrived anywhere," Strong tells his players. "The minute you think you've arrived, you get hit in the mouth."
Arrival or no arrival, U of L football is standing on the platform. It is ranked No. 9 in the nation heading into this season, its highest-ever national ranking. A year from now, it will enter the Atlantic Coast Conference, a feat of improbability as nearly as great as its growth.
No arrival, says Strong. His team is favored in every game. All but one by double-digits. The American Athletic Conference awaits, striking fear into no one. While the rest of the country regards the league with disdain, Strong is preaching respect.
"I don't ever want to talk about winning a national championship," said Strong, who won one at Florida. "There's a lot of things that have to happen. There's a lot of luck involved. And you don't want to put added pressure on your team, where they're always thinking, we have to go win it, we have to go win it.
"Someone once told me," Strong says, "you never talk about winning a national championship. You just wake up in the morning and you're national champion."
Schnellenberger, of course, is of a different mind. "Now is the time," he said.
Possibility or not, championship talk must wait. Still, U of L players have not been afraid to talk about winning all their games. Some talk about perfection as nonchalantly as they would talk about video games or girlfriends.
If there's a reason to believe this Louisville team will maintain the right mindset, it's Bridgewater. The junior heard teammates talking about him being a Heisman candidate, kidding them that he shouldn't have to do this drill or that. He didn't like it. He went to coaches and asked them not to put him forward as a candidate. They agreed.
Didn't matter. He still is among the candidates for the award. He's one of the top players in college football, according to most analysts. He will be a first-round draft pick.
He spent his offseason visiting fans in the hospital. Two days before the season-opener against Ohio, he was at a local grade school. And he has been studying. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson says his goal for Bridgewater this season is consistency. As Bridgewater has grown in understanding, the offense has grown in complexity. Bridgewater doesn't go to malls. He doesn't show up in clubs. He lives football, even plays it when he's not playing, reprogrammed his video game to run his own offense and opponent defenses.
The team is deep at running back, and even deeper with the arrival of transfer Michael Dyer, who was Most Valuable Player of the BCS championship game at Auburn. Wide receivers are deep. DeVante Parker expects a breakout season. Robert Clark, a transfer from Florida, has quietly slid into the starting lineup, displacing starters from a Sugar Bowl championship team.
The defense will remain a question mark until it proves its new aggressive stance from defensive coordinator Vance Bedford is more than talk. It will face quick-hitting offenses early in the season, offenses that thrive on attacking opposing pass rushes with short, quick passes. Bedford will look for the right mix of aggression and discipline.
And there are the opponents, beginning with Ohio, many of them already written off by media and oddsmakers, but who have, without fanfare, gotten ready for their own moment, a chance to grab national headlines by toppling a team not expected to lose.
Ohio might be the best-equipped of them all, with seasoned skill players from the upset-minded Mid-American Conference.
"Get on the train," Bedford told U of L fans the first time he addressed the gathered media before Strong's first season.
It's not an arrival, Strong says. It's a departure. But this program that spent many years in the shadows now is on the platform, hoping to embark on a journey it once was foolish to even dream.