WVU-Louisville scores upset victory for ambition

West Virginia-Louisville marks a rare moment in college football when underdog ambition has triumphed over old-money tradition, writes Pat Forde.

Updated: November 2, 2006, 1:10 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's tempting to believe nothing ever changes in college football. From Michigan's fight song to Notre Dame's gold helmets to Texas' hook 'em Horns, tradition rules more tyrannically than in any other sport.

But if you look beneath the static surface, you'll see periodic eruptions of ambition that have sent shock waves through all that tradition.

Twenty-three years ago a Miami program that had been an historic failure rose up to beat a Nebraska juggernaut some considered the best team of all time. And the game's landscape was fundamentally changed, with a new dynasty suddenly rising in South Florida.

Howard Schnellenberger
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesHoward Schnellenberger started Louisville's ambitious college football climb.
Two years later the coach of that Miami team, Howard Schnellenberger, rather stunningly showed up in his hometown of Louisville as the coach of the Cardinals. Howard puffed absurd optimism out of his trademark pipe, talking about putting a program in even worse shape than Miami's used to be on "a collision course with the national championship."

"The only variable," Schnellenberger rumbled grandiosely, "is time."

Set your alarm clock for 7:30 p.m. ET, Howard. And listen for a collision.

Even if it's not yet Louisville's time, we've still arrived at a rare college football moment. A moment when underdog ambition has triumphed over old-money tradition.

We've arrived at a moment when a basketball school and a perennial midlevel football program from a left-for-dead conference could meet on a Thursday night, and America would consider it the Game of the Year to date.

And waiting in the wings is undefeated … Rutgers?

What, pray tell, would Woody Hayes have to say about this?

West Virginia-Louisville? On a weeknight? And it matters?

All true. Two schools that have circumvented their lack of tradition by doing things the unconventional way -- playing all comers on odd nights, recruiting heavily outside their own modest backyards, incorporating cutting-edge offensive schemes -- have reached an unlikely center stage.

This earthquake of ambition follows a succession of tremors over the past 20 years.

Schnellenberger, the defiant dreamer, started the chain reaction by talking loudly and then slowly building a team that would live up to the boasting. He tapped a Florida recruiting pipeline that remains active to this day, upgraded the schedule and began winning games. By the time he was done, in 1994, they'd stopped giving away free tickets for Louisville football games with a fill-up of gas and started a serious push to build Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

The under-construction stadium helped lure a new athletic director, a keen-eyed football man named Tom Jurich. Shortly after taking the job, he made the controversial decision to trapdoor Ron Cooper after three lousy years succeeding Schnellenberger, then replaced him with an unknown cowboy from the West named John L. Smith.

Louisville was 1-10 the year before Smith arrived. The Cardinals have had nothing but winning records in the nine seasons since. He engineered a turnaround that has never faltered.

Even after Smith jarringly jilted Louisville for Michigan State -- literally in the middle of the 2002 GMAC Bowl -- the program's momentum would not be stopped. Jurich hired another relative unknown, career assistant Bobby Petrino, and Louisville football shot into a new realm of success.

(The irony of this week's events is inescapable: One of the primary reasons Smith left Louisville for East Lansing was his belief that championship football couldn't be played here. The West Virginia game is precisely the kind of game Smith thought would never happen at Louisville. Thirty hours before kickoff, his forced resignation was announced at Michigan State.)

Don Nehlen
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesDon Nehlen led WVU to unbeaten regular seasons in 1988 and 1993.
The journey to this point is only a little less unlikely at West Virginia. The Mountaineers had always enjoyed fairly consistent success but hit few high notes; there was a single AP top-10 finish in the first 54 years of the poll's existence.

But Jim Carlen got something started in the late 1960s and handed the reins to his assistant, a fellow named Bobby Bowden. After five winning seasons in six years, capped off by a 9-3 season and No. 20 AP ranking, Bowden went off to Florida State. You might have heard about his work there.

Much like Louisville, West Virginia then suffered through a bad hire (Frank Cignetti) and had to make a change on the cusp of moving into a remodeled stadium. In came Don Nehlen to take the Mountaineers to new heights: conference affiliation with the Big East; an undefeated 1988 regular season and Fiesta Bowl showdown with Notre Dame; an undefeated 1993 regular season and Sugar Bowl matchup with Florida.

West Virginia lost both of those showcase bowls handily. As it stands today, no program has won more games (649) without winning a national championship. The collision course has proved elusive in Morgantown, too.

When Nehlen finally hung it up in 2000 after 21 years on the job, West Virginia at least had someone in the family to turn to in Rich Rodriguez. A native of the state, former player and former assistant, Rodriguez had made his name as Tommy Bowden's offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson. When he answered the call to come home, the program had the man it needed to move beyond its previous boundaries.

Rich Rodriguez
Jim Rogash/WireImage.comRich Rodriguez has adapted his spread offense to feature the running game.
In Petrino and Rodriguez, these two schools have procured offensive savants from backgrounds that might not suggest brilliance. Rodriguez was a defensive back who became one of the pioneers of the spread offense. Petrino was the son of a famed Montana small-college option coach who became one of the foremost quarterback gurus and passing-game experts in the country.

If there is a single common denominator between the two different coaches, it's this: They adapt to excel.

Rodriguez first made his rep at Tulane and Clemson by throwing the ball liberally, yet in the past five years his teams have led the Big East in rushing offense every year. (West Virginia currently leads the country in rushing.) Everyone in the stadium knows Steve Slaton and Pat White are going to run the football, but it's been 14 straight victories since anybody knew how to stop the Mountaineers. Smashmouth is now a way of life.

"Five or six years ago this offense was probably 60 percent or 55 percent pass," Rodriguez said. "I think we've geared it more toward the run because it's what our guys are good at. No question it's part of our identity now."

Bobby Petrino
Peter Aiken/WireImage.comBobby Petrino has developed a series of gifted quarterbacks.
As for Petrino, despite his gift for helping develop quarterbacks such as Chris Redman, Jason Campbell, Stefan LeFors and now Brian Brohm, he has a similar zeal for the running game. Don't ever look for Louisville to throw it a dozen times or fewer on his watch, but neither will they resemble a June Jones outfit.

"I've always thought that if you want to have a chance to compete for a BCS championship bowl, you had to be able to run the football, and then when the opportunity presents itself throw it downfield," Petrino said.

Rodriguez has turned his offense over to fleet-footed White, a little-known kid plucked from the Alabama Gulf Coast, with startling results. Petrino has turned his offense over to super-heady Brohm, an all-everything recruit from the Cardinals' backyard. They do things completely differently and come from different backgrounds, but they'll share the spotlight Thursday night.

They're an unlikely pairing in a highly unlikely marquee game. Score an upset victory for ambition over tradition.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.