Published November 20, 2014
The noise from construction workers putting the finishing touches on the expansion project at Cardinals Stadium filters through the midsummer haze, a constant series of clangs and crashes that is a perfect metaphor for a Louisville football program trying to rebuild.
A hundred yards away, Charlie Strong is drowning all of it out.
The man charged with returning the Cardinals to prominence stands in the middle of the practice field. It's early. It's hot. And he's angry.
Unhappy with the energy level, Strong orders his players to the sideline for a series of sprints. Again and again the Cardinals run, Strong's hoarse voice urging them to dig deeper.
Discipline is back at Louisville. Players can get into trouble for everything from parking in the wrong spot in the player's lot to walking — instead of sprinting — to the next drill.
"The attention to detail is phenomenal and it's everywhere," said Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich. "Whether it's where the towels are in the locker room to the T-shirts to the logos to the weight room, to the strength and conditioning policies. Everything."
Wins may take awhile longer for a team that's been in freefall since winning the Orange Bowl four seasons ago.
Strong is OK with that. The longtime Florida defensive coordinator spent the last 25 years working toward an opportunity to become a head coach. He's well aware of the virtues of patience, even if his runs out from time to time.
Hours after being hired to replace Steve Kragthorpe last December, Strong held a closed-door meeting with the team that featured a peel-the-paint-off-the-wall rant in which he openly questioned the program's toughness.
Eight months later, the transformation is well under way. It better be if the depth-depleted Cardinals want to be considered a threat in the Big East.
"What he says goes because the dude has won wherever he's been," senior quarterback Justin Burke said. "I've been around a lot of coaches in the last five years and he's pretty much the best."
Louisville was picked to finish last in the league, coming off a 4-8 season in which it hardly resembled the powerhouse that came within a second-half meltdown against Rutgers from playing for the national title in 2006.
The road back will be bumpy. There are questions everywhere, from quarterback to the offensive line to the defensive front seven. Strong is making sure everyone gets a chance to provide an answer.
Outside of a few select players, nobody's job is safe.
"We need to go and find a quarterback," Strong said. "At wide receiver, some guys need to come on. The rest of those positions we're going to continue to open up and let guys compete. You have to compete. That's when you find out who guys are."
The process could take awhile. Burke, Adam Froman and sophomore Will Stein will all get a chance at quarterback, though Froman's mobility could give him a leg up while playing behind a rebuilt offensive line.
Running back Victor Anderson slumped as a sophomore due to injury. He's back, a little leaner, a little quicker and a little brasher. He raised eyebrows when he announced "Louisville is back" recently. Hey, you got to start somewhere, right?
"We know people aren't talking about us," he said. "We know that's something we need to earn. We can't be worried about what other people are saying."
The speedy Anderson and the sturdier Bilal Powell will be asked to take some of the pressure off the quarterbacks. They'll also try to kick start an offense that has sagged. Louisville was second in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense four years ago. Last year the Cardinals were 91st.
The scoreboard-tilting numbers Louisville had under former coach Bobby Petrino helped put the football program on equal footing with Rick Pitino's men's basketball team. The school approved expansion at Cardinals Stadium to 55,000 shortly after winning the Orange Bowl.
Three years later, the job is almost complete. The landscape, however, has changed dramatically. Kragthorpe walked out of a half-empty stadium in his final game last fall. Strong knows part of his job is to bring the buzz back, putting people in seats in the process.
It's a challenge the players welcome.
Anderson opted for Louisville when the Cardinals were atop the Big East. The hometown kid didn't imagine the Cardinals would fall so far so fast. He doesn't see any reason why they can't rise just as quickly.
"We know the kind of talent we have," he said. "And we know Coach Strong is going to do everything he can. He just wants you to worry about football."
In exchange, Strong is asking for a heightened commitment from his players. He has instituted five core values that he has plastered across the football complex and inside their player manuals. The gist is simple: be accountable for your actions.
It's a notion the players have embraced. They didn't utter a peep when Strong ordered them to spend 10 days in a hotel together during fall camp, viewing the idea as opportunity to build unity on a team that will need to have an "us against the world" attitude.
"We know what we're up against," said defensive end Greg Scruggs. "We know what people expect of us. But our expectations are higher and our goal is to exceed them."