For the first time in as long as any of us can remember, the Louisville football team will play all of its home games on Saturday afternoons or evenings this coming fall. In fact, the Cardinals will play just one weeknight game period in 2017: a Thursday night road tilt against North Carolina State on October 5.
This is not normal for a program that owes a chunk of the credit for its ascent to national prominence to nationally televised weeknight games.
The party line of “big time college football is played on Saturday and Saturday only” is one that has been used liberally by the sport’s elite powers for years. Blue-blood programs from the SEC and the Big 12 that have given generations of fans success of the highest-level consistently turn up their nose at the mere thought of a weekend tailgate being snatched away in favor of a few extra eyes on television.
It’s a stance that Louisville football never had the luxury of taking.
When Tom Jurich took over as Louisville’s athletic director in 1997, the program had just endured a 1-10 season and was at risk of being kicked out of Conference USA. The good news for Jurich was that he had a new head coach in John L. Smith and a new offensive coordinator in Bobby Petrino that he knew, at the very least, were going to make the team more enjoyable to follow because of its offensive output. He knew he was going to have a product that was much superior than what it had been, now he just had to figure out a way to make the rest of the country see it.
Jurich would eventually go to ESPN, the entity that controls that sort of thing. UofL football wasn’t in a position to call any significant shots, so Jurich played the best hand he had available to him.
“Louisville came to us and said, ‘We’ll play anyone, anywhere, anytime,’” Mark Shapiro, former ESPN head of programming and production, told The New York Times in 2013. “It was a programmer’s dream. We already had NFL on Sunday nights, NHL and MLB. on multiple nights, Thursday night college football. We were all filled up. So I said, ‘How about Tuesday nights?’ They seized it, and over time, their results have been spectacular.”
Just as Jurich had suspected, Louisville football began lighting up the scoreboard on a weekly basis. And just as he had hoped, a viewing audience that would have flipped right past the Cardinals on a jammed Saturday began to appreciate and eat up the UofL team it was now regularly seeing play only-show-in-town games on weekday nights.
In 2001, Louisville appeared on ESPN or ESPN2 five times. A year later, it was six games, including a Tuesday night game, three Thursday games and a Saturday game starting at 9:30 p.m.
“We owe them so, so much,” Jurich said of ESPN. “They were willing to take a chance on us. We became America’s team.”
Thanks to the added exposure, Louisville was able to start landing a better breed of recruits. Quarterback Stefan LeFors, the 2003 Conference USA Player of the Year, admitted after he arrived at UofL that he knew nothing about the program before it started putting up absurd numbers on unordinary nights. He also said those games were the only reason he chose to come play for the Cardinals.
With the addition of players like LeFors, Louisville was able to reach the postseason in every year from 1997 to 2006. It was also able to go from a struggling program in a struggling conference to one that was able to make the jump to the Big East in 2005 and then eventually to the ACC in 2014.
Even as recently as last season, we’ve seen how playing on a weeknight with little to no other competition can help even an established national program. With the eyes of the college football world focused solely on the Carrier Dome, Lamar Jackson made his first major Heisman statement by lighting up the Orange on a Friday night in which he also delivered what would wind up being his signature highlight: “The Leap.”
Louisville doesn’t have to maintain the mantra anymore, but “anyone, anywhere, anytime” certainly served the program well. VT