Papa’s House to Get Bigger as Cards Ready for Tigers

Inside View of BowlThis weekend, the Louisville football team will travel to Atlanta to face a top 10 Auburn team that is the preseason pick to win the Southeastern Conference. You know this because we’ve been counting down the days to this one since what feels like early April.

Now season-openers are always exciting, and season-openers against big name programs are next-level exciting. But I think I speak for all of us when I say that there’s something a little bit different about this game and this day. The countdown to kickoff this summer has been more than just a still march to a big contest and a highly anticipated season – it’s been ripe with the reinforcement that Louisville is now officially playing with the big boys.

Fifteen years ago, Cardinal fans were still ecstatic over the recent opening of the 42,000-seat Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and counting down the days until the team’s annual showdown with Conference USA rival Southern Mississippi. Meanwhile, the powers that be at UofL were desperately trying (with little success) to get some of the sport’s most powerful programs to agree to play home-and-home series.

Fast forward to last week when UofL athletic director Tom Jurich announced the plans for a stadium expansion that will eventually allow around 65,000 Cardinal fans to watch the red and black play at home. In addition to this Saturday’s game against Auburn, Louisville has set season-openers for the future against Purdue in Indianapolis (2017), against Alabama in Orlando (2018), and against Notre Dame at home (2019).

A Cardinal football fan from 1993 reading that last paragraph would probably look something like an early 19th century intellectual experiencing electricity: they could have imagined it, but being faced directly with its reality would still be staggering.

The best part about the move to the ACC from a football standpoint was never the potential access to the new playoff or the promise of more money, it was the guarantee that every single season Louisville would have a chance. A chance to play and defeat some of the biggest names in college football, a chance to earn a top 10 national ranking without people constantly questioning its validity, and a chance to win a major conference championship. There would be no repeat of 2013, when the Cards’ schedule knocked them out of the national championship race before a single snap was ever taken.

Perception trumps reality in college football more than it does in any other major American sport, and the current perception – regardless of how many times it’s disproved on the field – is that if you play and are at least mildly competitive in a major conference, you are a much better program than ones which dominate lesser leagues. The company you keep is extremely important, and Louisville’s new ACC brethren, in addition to the stadium expansion, have certainly played a large role in UofL’s ability to get teams like Auburn and Alabama on the schedule.

Of course, with any potential reward there is a potential risk, and Louisville’s big chance against the top 10 Tigers goes hand-in-hand with the chance that it might wind up being beaten in front of a large national audience on CBS.

When the Cardinals take the field inside the Georgia Dome, they will be doing so as double-digit underdogs for the first time in 27 games. The last time it happened? The 2013 Sugar Bowl, when Louisville was a two-touchdown dog against another SEC powerhouse, Florida. I don’t need to tell you how that played out.

For as long as I can remember, all anyone associated with Louisville football has wanted is a shot. The program couldn’t get into a top-tier conference because of its lack of on-field success, and then once that success came, it couldn’t get any national powerhouse programs to agree to play. Now, the Cardinals have both the conference and the opponents they’ve always wanted.

You can’t hit a home run unless you swing big, and you can’t swing big unless someone’s willing to pitch to you. Expect Louisville to take a mighty hack this Saturday.

The expansion will include 1,000 modern club seats, 65 new premium loge-level boxes, and 10 exclusive field-level suites, while adding 25,000 distinct square feet of space. The Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex, which currently sits in the north end zone, will undergo a major expansion and facelift. The team’s weight room and conditioning center will double in size, creating a total of 20,000 square feet of work space for training, conditioning and therapeutic support. A spacious player’s lounge, improvements for coaches’ offices and the team locker room and expansive theatre-style meeting areas will also be among the enhancements for student-athlete development.

Photo courtesy of Louisville Athletics