CRAWFORD | With arrival in ACC, U of L's football fan base also - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | With arrival in ACC, U of L's football fan base also comes of age

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 LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Somebody should just come out and say it -- the University of Louisville athletic program wasn't the only entity that stepped up to a major collegiate conference Monday night.

The sometimes-maligned and occasionally underestimated U of L fan base was right there waiting for it.

All U of L fans have done in the past week is pack 7,000-plus into a college soccer game and a stadium-record 55,649 into the Cardinals' Atlantic Coast Conference opener against Miami. Another 138,000 households watched the ESPN broadcast in the Louisville market -- which includes 18 surrounding counties -- according to The Nielsen Co.

But the Cardinal faithful showed up in more than numbers.

Former coach Charlie Strong occasionally lamented the late-arriving, tailgate-happy habits of the fan base. He bit his tongue at the early departures. It's not like he didn't have reason. His final game in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, against Memphis, was played in front of nearly 10,000 reported no-shows. And there were probably more than that -- for a team that would finish its season 12-1.

New coach Bobby Petrino can relate. The day he was first hired to coach Louisville, I sat in John L. Smith's office while the coach packed his things and listened to him suggest that the school's fan base needed to learn where it sat in the food chain and to become a participant in the school's football fortunes rather than a consumer of them.

Tom Jurich himself chafed a bit at fan unrest over Steve Kragthorpe.

There have been, it should be acknowledged, growing pains. Howard Schnellenberger, in his new book, Passing the Torch, talks of essentially having to coach Louisville's fledgling fan base right along with his team.

But on Monday night, in front of a national TV audience, the black-clad Cardinal crowd took flight.

If Strong was watching on TV back home in Austin, he saw a vision he'd had come to life. The crowd, nearly in its entirety, was in the stadium 20 minutes before kickoff. It was engaged throughout the pregame, and was loud throughout. It erupted at bad calls, went crazy on third down. Nobody left early. The seats were full at the final horn.

U of L fans deserved this night. Without them, the stadium never would've been built. There was no public money when the plans were drawn up. There was none when ground was broken, nor when an environmentally toxic brownfield was cleaned up. Later, the state legislature kicked in funds for an expansion, but it was U of L fans who backed the original construction.

Many of them took offense when coaches or administration seemed to forget to give them credit for that. But U of L athletic director Tom Jurich has not failed to acknowledge them as ACC play has drawn closer. He praised them for selling out 70 suites, and or stepping up to sell out the school's season-ticket allotment of 46,149.

Junior running back Dominique Brown said, "This was a big-time college crowd. When we got off the bus for Card March, I got goosebumps."

Petrino, too, mentioned Card March, the tradition of the team getting off the bus, and walking through fans from Central Avenue to the stadium.

"It wasn't like that before, the last time I was here," Petrino said. "I've never seen anything like that. It was really exciting for me and for our players. Our fans were right there with us tonight, every step."

Petrino has made the Tiger Walk at Auburn. He has been at Arkansas. He's seen big-time atmospheres.

He was part of one Monday night. About the only glitch came when the lower bowl on one half of the stadium was holding up placards for the benefit of the ESPN cameras, it looked as if the Louisville defense was distracted, and gave up a big play.

No matter. After years of waiting and, yes, working, giving and supporting and living through weeknight games and Conference USA schedules, this fan base earned the party it had on Monday, an all-day tailgate leading up to a celebration after a 31-13 victory in their first game as ACC members.

And no, the party isn't over. When you've been there through years at old Cardinal Stadium, tickets given away at convenience stores, national scoffing at your schedule, you've earned the right to a season-long celebration.

U of L fans have been among the best in the nation in basketball for more than two decades, ranking in the top five in attendance through good years and bad. The Cardinal football fan base is growing, though it isn't even the biggest in its own state. But on Monday night, it, too, showed it belonged among those from the best conferences in the nation.

Now, nobody is saying the crowd for Murray State will be of the same size or intensity. What I am saying is that a lot of years went into the fan base that showed up Monday night. And I think U of L can expect more of the same pretty regularly from now on.

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