LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium is, in some ways, still a new-feeling facility. We still call the place where the University of Louisville used to play its games the “old” Cardinal Stadium.

But the new stadium will turn 20 years old next September. I don’t think when it opened that anyone had dreams of ESPN setting up shop anywhere nearby to anchor its College GameDay program.

This Saturday it will happen for the second time in two years.

Recently, for an interview with Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, I got to thinking back about the stadium, and the program, as I walked through the maze of temporary fencing and entered the Howard Schnellenberer Football Complex through a seldom-used (by media) rear door while the other end of the facility undergoes an expansion.

I wasn’t at U of L the day the stadium opened. Petrino was. I was around for some of the difficult financial aftermath. It was one of my first lessons in facilities – the projections are always off. This one hadn’t included the cost of grass or groundskeeping or even a scoreboard in the original cost estimates.

Sometimes you do whatever have to do to get the thing built.

But rising up above my head as I entered the door was a section of stadium to enclose the north end zone, for the most part. And what you don’t see behind the stands is an expansion just as impressive on the rest of the football facility, the guts of the program, weight rooms and training rooms and meeting rooms.

When the building opened in 1998, U of L was coming off a 1-10 season, and endured a 68-34 beating at the hands of Kentucky.

Today, it is playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, with a Heisman Trophy in the stadium lobby and the Heisman winner still leading the team. Papa John's Cardinal Stadium soon will seat around 65,000. And Bobby Petrino, having left once and come back as head coach, then having left again only to return again, is still here.

With all the hype surrounding his team and ESPN coming back for College GameDay, Petrino did something he almost never does and allowed himself a quick look back, when a reporter asked if he thought it meant the program had taken a step forward.

“I was here when we were in Conference USA and Big East and battling (for recognition),” he said. “I think it's a real credit to everybody who made the plans to get us in the ACC. Now we've got the ability to have all that going on. It's exciting, it's something our fans have always wanted. We appreciate all the support we get; the construction that's going on out there is because of the fans and boosters we have.”

When Howard Schnellenberger famously said the program was, “on a collision course with a national championship, the only variable is time,” a lot of people laughed. They did that because the program was light years away from others who had that realistic expectation. Louisville didn’t even have a conference affiliation, much less a tradition of any length from which to draw such aspirations.

I asked Petrino about that, and whether he thinks Schnellenberger’s vision is close to reality, when I got a chance to interview him a couple of weeks ago.

“Yeah I remember when Howard said that. And I think they went out and beat Alabama. So that was a pretty good Fiesta Bowl,” he said. “But I believe that we’re competing for it. We’re out on the road recruiting hard. This is probably the best freshman recruiting class that we’ve had, that’s on campus right now. I feel like next year’s class has a chance to be better than that. Everybody’s excited about what’s going on here. We just have a challenge to get players on campus so that they can see what it’s all about. It seems like we’ve had a lot of success getting people on campus in the spring and summertime. People are committing earlier and earlier all the time. We’ve got this new signing day to see how that works out. But that’s our goal, to win a national championship, and I think our players truly believe in their heart that they can do it.”

Schnellenberger was trying to sell a vision. Petrino is hoping to sell a reality. Either way, the signs of progress are evident in construction beams being lifted overhead, as well as in what’s happening on the field.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Petrino said. “I’ve been fortunate to go through Conference USA and the Big East and now to be able to be in the ACC, you know, is a credit to everybody that’s helped the university, and certainly our athletic director Tom Jurich. But the construction is awesome. It’s been challenging as far as how we get to the field, how we get to the game field, how we go through scrimmages, but we’ll take it, because we know the end result is going to be a great game-day experience for the fans and for our players, and then the other structures that we get will help our players develop and become the best possible players they can become.”

College GameDay won’t be able to set up shop at the stadium this year. The crew and its set will be in front of U of L’s Grawemeyer Hall administration building. But the stadium growth will, once again, be front and center. And Petrino will once again be looking to take another step toward Schnellenberger’s vision.

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