A goal chart from a University of Louisville team meeting room. (Click to enlarge)
Dr. Christopher Peters, University of Louisville (Photo from U of L Physicians)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Perhaps you've read or heard something about this. Apparently, the University of Louisville football schedule isn't the strongest in the world.
All right, maybe that's an understatement -- both about the schedule, and how much you've heard about it.
It's difficult not to hear about it. Local talk radio is thinking about establishing a "Louisville schedule" channel to broadcast 24-7. You know the schedule is a bit soft when you're getting offers for fabric softener endorsements. There are doctoral dissertations being proposed. "Exploration of University of Louisville 2013 Football Schedule and Effect on Psychological Development and Cognitive Recognition of Competitive Intensity Among Males Age 18-23."
Charlie Strong, U of L coach, certainly has heard about it enough. His standard answer: "You'd have loved to play an early game where you could have gotten one of those top opponents in it. When you feel like you have a good football team that's what you'd like to see happen for your program."
Strong tried. So did athletic director Tom Jurich. There were talks with Alabama about replacing Virginia Tech on the schedule. There were discussions with Texas A&M. Michigan and Ohio State had one-game openings at home, and U of L volunteered. No takers. The Cards have had games canceled with Georgia and Vanderbilt. They thought they had games against Boise State and San Diego State in conference. Even TCU joined the Big East, then took the Big 12 instead. Short story: U of L winds up with a loaded team, and the short end of the schedule. No big games. And a bunch of bad ones. In fact, worse than anyone imagined. Of their nine remaining games, five are against teams still looking for their first win.
"We didn't get that opportunity," Strong said. "So now I just tell them all the time, guys it's all about us playing against ourselves. Let's just make sure that we don't slip. If we don't slip, then at the end of the year we'll just let it be where it is and see how it falls."
Playing against one's self is not as difficult, let's all admit up front, as playing against Alabama. But it's a different kind of challenge for a football team.
You're not playing against an opponent. You're playing against an ideal. Back when he was coaching the Philosophical Giants, drawing up plays on cave walls, Coach Plato would talk about an ideal, a vision of perfection, and lecture about using your existence to work toward that ideal form.
Plato would've been at home with this U of L football team. It must work toward an ideal, and measure itself against a standard other than the scoreboard. I don't know of many sports philosophers around to discuss this challenge. So I did the next-best thing. I found a sports psychiatrist.
Dr. Chris Peters is a psychiatrist with University of Louisville Physicians, who, among other things, works in sports medicine and has consulted at times with different U of L teams. He agrees that the challenge is a bit different.
"How do you sustain the motivation, the drive, the energy, when at some level it's sort of understood that you're favored or have more talent or are expected to win?" Peters said. "I think the coaching staff, it really falls to them to think of creative ways to challenge each team member, even individually, then as a team with shorter, immediate goals to take the emphasis off the games themselves and put it on learning, development of individual skills and team cohesion and skills, then have the long-term goal that keeps you driven."
This kind of challenge is not unheard of. Swimmers and runners have to meet specific times in order to qualify for various events. They aren't necessarily training with a specific opponent in mind all the time. Other sports have similar situations. It's just unusual to see it for a football team.
And it's a special challenge with a college team. There's no substitute for the "big game" to sharpen the focus of a team. Rick Pitino credited the pressure his team faced in the NCAA Tournament for keeping it focused enough to win. In the absence of that, Peters said, it takes great maturity to stay sharp and keep improving.
With college players, that makes it difficult. College coaches are driven people, 24-7. College players are driven sometimes. They're passionate about the game, but it takes more to focus that passion.
"The more mature we are, the more we can appreciate what we do day-in and day-out for the love of it," Peters said. "If you love to play football, then you go out and see it as an opportunity to play and get better, then you're intrinsically motivated and maybe don't need the external stimulus.
"But the younger person really motivates himself sometimes by achieving or winning the big game and developing confidence through that success. And in college and high school we're still developing that (intrinsic motivation), which makes it kind of tricky."
There are some things, however, in U of L's motivational favor. First, most of the Cards have seen the effects of a letdown first-hand. They opened last season 9-0, then lost back-to-back games. That experience should be something U of L players can draw on, and something coaches can use during the course of the season, Peters said.
Strong has been known, in his U of L tenure, as a proactive coach in terms of motivation. His notes are all over the Howard Schnellenberger complex. The charts in the offensive, defensive and special teams meeting room track dozens of goals. One in the team meeting room lists: "100 percent ball security, zero foolish penalties, 12 or more explosion plays (+15 passing, +10 rushing) fewer than four negative-yardage plays" and on with goals for every phase. These are the building blocks of success for U of L, and it's on these that coaches want the team focused when the opponent is less-than inspiring. The players wear wristbands that say "Earn It."
"It's all about us," Strong said.
Another ally for the Cards is one that fans might not entirely welcome -- the haters. Criticism might give Strong and his staff some fuel for the motivational fire down the road.
"You're always looking for those comments that might stir up some angst or . . . give you an edge," Peters said. "But I think that's a slippery slope. It can't be all about winning. You have to have result goals and process goals. And for these guys, it's about continuing to improve. If you haven't played your best game yet, your goal is to have your best game."
Ah, yes. Back to the Platonic ideal. Finally, Peters said that team chemistry also plays a role in the Cardinals' situation.
"When you're on a team, there's a relational motivation," he said. "If I really feel connected to a team and a coach, the more cohesive a team is, the less likely you are to have problems with motivation. This staff seems to do a really nice job of building relationships with the team and players and among the players, and I think that creates motivation."
I don't know. Without a big yardstick, it's tough to measure. It's a different kind of season in Louisville, one in which a coach and team will try to build a great team against a schedule that is not great.