This cardboard cutout of Charlie Strong greeted fans at the Russell Athletic Bowl pregame luncheon Friday.
ORLANDO, FL. (WDRB) -- Nobody, when the season began, had the University of Louisville football team pegged to be playing in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The Cardinals were the preseason pick to win the American Athletic Conference, and were the top pick on 28 of 30 media ballots (Cincinnati got the other two votes). They were ranked No. 9 in the nation. Some oddsmakers gave them the best chance of any team in the nation to go undefeated.
But with Central Florida, not Louisville, grabbing the AAC's Bowl Championship Series slot after knocking off the Cardinals in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, U of L coach Charlie Strong on Friday looked to recast the final judgment on his team.
"What happened is that expectations were so high," Strong said in his news conference to talk about Saturday's bowl matchup against Miami. "I was telling my team, you had high expectations, and you lived up to them. You're sitting here, you're 11-1. You've always just got to go back and re-evaluate the whole season. Any time you're trying to build a program, you're just trying to create consistency within the program. And that's what we're trying to do. We knew there were going to be some highs and lows. But our players were able to bounce back.
"I think back to the one loss we had. We very easily could have let that game beat us twice, but we didn't. So I'm very proud of that senior class, all the guys who have graduated out of that class, a class that over four years is 36-15."
All of that, of course, is correct. But none of it is going to wipe the slate clean of what might have been. Maybe it's not fair to expect perfection from anyone. But perfection against the schedule U of L played wasn't asking too much.
This game against Miami is perhaps the best possible alternative to a BCS berth -- but it is just that, an alternative.
For the past week, U of L's players have been soaking up the warm temperatures in Orlando and getting ready for a game most of them are genuinely looking forward to -- a bowl game against Miami on Saturday evening.
The Florida natives on U of L's roster are excited to play the game. The Miami-area players have reconnected with guys they played Pop Warner and high school ball with and against.
U of L's fan base has responded in a positive way. They've bought more tickets from the school (upwards of 11,000, at the last update from the school) than Central Florida has sold for its BCS game appearance in the Fiesta Bowl.
By all accounts, the program has moved on from the disappointment of not earning a second straight BCS berth.
But nothing Strong says is likely to rewrite that disappointment out of this team's story. And it has been a fantastic story in some ways -- especially off the field, where the Cardinals had 19 players walk through December commencement activities before Christmas. Just three years ago, the program was penalized for falling short of NCAA academic guidelines.
U of L president James Ramsey didn't try to skirt the original goal.
"You couldn't beat last year, and the Bowl Championship Series (game)," Ramsey said. "But if you can't make that, this is a great stage to be on."
Strong is hoping to parlay the enthusiasm of his Florida guys into another strong bowl performance. The Cards have won two out of their three bowl games under Strong, including last year's Sugar Bowl win over Florida.
Miami coach Al Golden said the key for his team would be getting pressure on U of L quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, trying to keep him from getting into a rhythm. Strong said U of L will try to prevent the big play, which Miami has lived on this season.
"In my four years here, this is the best offense we will have matched up against," Strong said.
Strong even voiced an unapologetic note to critics who say the team hasn't been exciting enough this season.
"I'm a defensive coach," Strong said. "If you've ever seen our plan to win, the first one is play great defense. . . . Everybody has to contribute, from the offensive side to the defensive side to the special teams side. And that's what it's all about, and that's what it'll always be. I'm a defensive coach. If the score was 9-3 it wouldn't bother me at all, if it was 15-12 it wouldn't bother me at all. I just know at the end of the day if you're going to win you're going to win with great defense."
Strong began this season questioning the expectations his team was facing. He ends it on defense, defending what the team has accomplished against those expectations. At least he's been consistent. No one can say he hasn't.