When Steve Kragthorpe was named Tulsa's coach before the 2003 season, he inherited a program that was among the worst in college football. The Golden Hurricane had won only two games in the previous two seasons combined and had lost 21 of their last 22 games.
Over the next four seasons, Kragthorpe directed one of the biggest turnarounds in the sport's history, leading Tulsa to 29 wins and three bowl games in four seasons.
So when Kragthorpe left Tulsa to replace Bobby Petrino at Louisville before the 2007 season, he thought his renovation work was over. The Cardinals were coming off a 12-1 season in which they won the Big East championship and beat Wake Forest 24-13 in the Orange Bowl. Louisville returned 21 starters from that team, including quarterback Brian Brohm and myriad offensive weapons.
Who knew Louisville was actually in worse shape than Tulsa when Kragthorpe arrived?
"I was shocked," Kragthorpe said. "I've never seen anything like this."
Besieged by off-field and discipline problems, a Louisville team that was projected to finish in the top 10 in 2007 somehow limped to a 6-6 record. Kragthorpe dismissed as many as a dozen players he inherited from Petrino. In fact, Kragthorpe is still weeding out the root of what he believes caused last year's team to collapse. In February, starting cornerback Rod Council was kicked off the team after his arrest for allegedly robbing a gas station in his home state of North Carolina.
On the field, the Cardinals' high-octane offense was still pretty efficient last season, averaging 488 yards and more than 35.2 points per game. But Louisville's defense was among the worst in college football, allowing 416.5 yards and 31.4 points per game. The Cardinals allowed 38 points or more in seven games, including humbling losses to rival Kentucky, Syracuse and Utah.
"Personally, it was the most frustrating year I've had in coaching, without question," Kragthorpe said. "It doesn't matter to me what we were the year before or what we will be next year. Each year is different, and each year brings a different set of circumstances. But I was extremely frustrated with our performance last year."
Kragthorpe didn't wait long to try to fix the Cardinals' problems. He fired defensive coordinator Mike Cassity, a holdover from Petrino's staff, and replaced him with former Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English. Four new defensive assistants were also hired, including former Western Michigan defensive coordinator Bill Miller, who will coach the team's linebackers.
Kragthorpe said the Cardinals tried to do too much on defense last season. In the end, Louisville couldn't do anything well on that side of the football.
"We became a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none," Kragthorpe said. "We had problems getting lined up and getting in position to make plays. We didn't do a good enough job of getting them in position."
Louisville might be positioned for big improvement this coming season, even without Brohm, who is expected to be a first-round choice in April's NFL draft. Senior Hunter Cantwell, who waited three years behind Brohm to win the starting job, went into spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. Cantwell, from Paducah, Ky., started two games in 2005 and two more in 2006 when Brohm was sidelined with injuries. Cantwell played in only two games last season.
"It feels good," Cantwell said. "This is something I've worked really hard to obtain for a long time. I had to wait behind Brian and learn from him. I just stuck it out and waited for my senior year to have my time."
Cantwell said he never considered transferring to another school, even when his chances for playing time seemed so slim.
"I walked on at Louisville and it was the only Division I-A school that gave me a chance," Cantwell said. "I just felt a lot of loyalty to the school and my coaches. As tough as it was, and even when people were always telling me, 'transfer, transfer, transfer,' I couldn't imagine leaving Louisville."
Cantwell is battling sophomore Tyler Wolfe and redshirt freshman Matt Simms for the starting job. Simms is the son of former NFL quarterback Phil Simms and the younger brother of former Texas and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms.
Kragthorpe said Cantwell has the advantage because of his experience. He completed 59 percent of his passes for 1,419 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions in his first three college seasons.
"I think he's embracing the leadership role that comes with being the starting quarterback," Kragthorpe said. "Certainly, we haven't handed him the job, but he would be the incumbent so to speak, simply because he has the highest level of experience. I think he is excited to step into the role that has been vacated. At various times in his career, when that role was on a short-term basis been vacated, he's stepped up and played really well."
Like Petrino, Kragthorpe believes Cantwell has the physical makeup and arm strength to become an NFL quarterback. The 6-foot-4, 236-pound senior will have one season to prove to NFL scouts that he's good enough to play at the next level.
"I think he certainly has the physical skill set to be an NFL quarterback," Kragthorpe said. "He can make the throws that you want a guy to be able to make, throwing the ball outside the numbers with velocity. His accuracy is continuing to improve as his mechanics continue to improve. Certainly, he has the physical stature of a guy you're looking for to play at that level. If he can show on a consistent basis that he can move the team and be an effective player, then he has a chance to play in the NFL."
Who starts at quarterback might be the least of Louisville's concerns this spring, though. The Cardinals must replace record-setting receivers Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia, and leading rusher Anthony Allen left the team and is expected to enroll at Georgia Tech. Just as importantly, tight ends Gary Barnidge and Scott Kuhn are gone, after each played a big role in Kragthorpe's spread-style offense.
"Those guys afforded us so much in terms of flexibility and playing out of a two-tight end set," Kragthorpe said. "You could have so many personalities. You had the ability to be flexed out and play wide receiver, and they had the ability to bounce back into the backfield and block as fullbacks. Certainly, that's an area where we have to find guys to jump into those spots. Right now, we don't have anybody."
Still, defense remains Louisville's top priority as it continues spring practice. Kragthorpe hopes Miami transfer James Bryant can help at linebacker, where all three starters are gone. Michigan transfer James McKinney might help shore up the defensive line. Four juco transfers enrolled in January and also are competing for playing time on defense.
"I like the direction we're headed right now," Kragthorpe said. "I like the attitude of our players. I think they're excited about getting back on the field and rectifying the situation we encountered last year."
This much is clear: Kragthorpe will be leading the charge. Near the end of Kragthorpe's first season at Louisville, things were going so badly that there was widespread speculation he might leave. Kragthorpe was mentioned as a possible candidate at SMU and a few other schools that had coaching openings. Louisville even had a news conference to announce its coach was staying.
"I'm in this thing for the long haul," Kragthorpe said. "That's why I came here. If I wanted to stay at Tulsa, I would have stayed at Tulsa. I took a pay cut to come here. If it was about money, I would have stayed at Tulsa."
When is the last time Louisville fans heard their coach say that?
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.