Louisville now a two-sport town

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A longitudinal study of the University of Louisville's football progress neatly encompasses the adult lifetimes of Oscar and Donna Brohm.

From the turkey to the elephant to the pipe, they've seen it all. From the gas station to the baseball stadium to the sellouts, they've been there. From the Missouri Valley Conference to Conference USA to the Big East, they've been along for the ride.

Oscar was a Louisville quarterback and Donna was his bride in the 1960s, when the Cardinals were playing the likes of Drake in front of friends-and-family gatherings. Then Oscar and Donna were proud parents when their oldest two sons, Jeff and Greg, played on Louisville's breakthrough 1990 team, which went 10-1-1 and stunningly thrashed Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl -- but still played its home games in a rickety Triple-A baseball stadium.

Today the first family of Louisville football is watching their baby, super-touted freshman Brian, continue the family business of playing quarterback for the Cardinals. They're also watching Jeff serve as his position coach, and Greg work as the program's director of football operations.

And they're watching from chairback seats in a sparkling, seven-year-old stadium, with ESPN television cameras perched above. Ask Donna Brohm to compare the scale of Louisville football in the '60s with Louisville football today and she laughs heartily.

"Oh, Lord," she said. "It was nothing like this. There's no comparison.

"Louisville was not a football school back then."

Today, Louisville remains a basketball-first school. But football is riding shotgun and cannot be ignored any longer. This has become a dual-sport athletic program.

In the Brohms' day, this was a school where the football program was the wretched stepchild to hoops. A school that begged and scraped for every player and patron it could get. A school that needed every goofy attention-getting angle it could come up with.

Which is where the turkey and the elephant -- and Lee Corso -- come in.

When the Cardinals played Tulsa on Thanksgiving in 1969, Corso brought a live turkey to midfield for the pre-game coin toss. When they played Memphis, he went into Hannibal mode and rode an elephant onto the field.

"He was trying to promote the program," said Oscar Brohm, who was a senior in Corso's first year at Louisville. "If he wasn't there at the beginning of the practice, you knew he was out riding an elephant or something."

Did it work? Not so fast, my friend. After four years of winning games nobody watched, Corso upgraded to the Big Ten and Indiana. And Louisville slid further into obscurity.

Not that the Brohm kids noticed. They were going to 'Ville home games during good times and bad.

"They seemed big to me," Greg Brohm said. "I wouldn't have known the difference. But you knew it wasn't quite the same as you watched on TV at home."

During the post-Corso era, three coaches combined for 11 losing seasons in the next 13 years. Attendance slumped to the point that tickets were given away with a fill-up of gas. In a fine piece of blackmail, season basketball tickets could not be bought without a purchase of season football tickets (not that anybody used the football ducats). Serious discussions were held within the university community about dropping football altogether, or at least moving down to a lower division.

And then, in 1985, Howard Schnellenberger came home.

The previous year, the Louisville native and University of Kentucky graduate had made one of the most dubious moves in coaching history, leaving national champion Miami for the USFL. That franchise folded before he ever coached a game, leaving him fortuitously unemployed. He became Louisville football's human life preserver.

Schnellenberger arrived blowing smoke from his omnipresent pipe and predicting a revival along the lines of what he worked in Coral Gables. After starting his Louisville tenure 8-26-1, believers were hard to find.

But then it all turned with breathtaking quickness. After consecutive winning records, the 10-1-1 team broke open the floodgates and led to Schnellenberger's outrageous assertion: "We're on a collision course with the national championship. The only variable is time."

It was ludicrous, of course, but people began to believe. By Jeff Brohm's senior year as quarterback of the Cards, they were beating the likes of Texas and Arizona State, then winning the 1993 Liberty Bowl.

"Whatever coach Schnellenberger said, people believed," said Greg Brohm, a three-year starter at wide receiver. "He made it our reality."

As part of selling Louisville on the inevitability of playing for a national championship, Schnellenberger sold the town on the need for a new stadium. After years of incremental-at-best progress, the project finally was done -- financed almost entirely with private donations.

Schnellenberger was long gone by the time Papa John's Cardinal Stadium opened in 1998, but his work was done. Louisville football had survived, and under new athletic director Tom Jurich and coach John L. Smith, it was set to thrive.

Flash forward to today. The No. 14-ranked Cardinals are 7-1 after crushing TCU 55-28 Wednesday night, and are on their way to their seventh straight bowl game. They were within 700 of a fourth straight sellout of their 42,000-seat stadium. Their coach, Bobby Petrino, is so hot that he'll be mentioned as a candidate for every big-time opening in America. They have been on ESPN more often than Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, working the weeknight exposure angle to the hilt.

"I think the 'Ville has become a national story," Jurich said. "Without those midweek games, we're just another football program."

The program has kept its aspirations suitably Schnellenbergerian. In a fit of hyperbole he would love, the school plastered up billboards last year reading, "Welcome To The 'Ville: The Best College Sports Town in America."

While the good people of Austin, Gainesville, Madison, Athens, Ann Arbor and 20 other locations would beg to argue that point, Louisville is doing its best to back it up. And landing the likes of Brian Brohm, considered by many the nation's No. 1 prep quarterback last year, goes a long way.

Brohm was wooed desperately by Tennessee and Notre Dame. He was courted heavily by Alabama, Georgia, Miami and just about everyone else. Finally, on signing day, he went with the family legacy.

But here's the thing: That legacy would have been snapped like uncooked noodles if Louisville didn't have big-time promise.

"Brian had a tough decision to make," Oscar Brohm said. "We did try to be objective. We went to a Tennessee practice, and they had great talent. We went to a Notre Dame game and saw their talent. Then we went to a Louisville practice and said, 'Hey, Louisville's got just as much talent, and at some of the skill positions, it might be better.' "

Combine that with the future Big East leap, and the chance to be coached by big brother Jeff, who had seven years of NFL experience, and Brian Brohm decided to stay home. Next year he'll be the starting quarterback on a team that could begin the year as the favorite to win the Big East and make a BCS bowl.

"That's why I wanted to come here," Brian said. "This is a program on the rise, with a chance to do things that have never been accomplished here."

For a family that began its association with Louisville football in the 1960s, this is pure fantasy.

"I never would have imagined it," Donna Brohm said. "It's amazing."

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com.