- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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On Big East Conference media day last month in Newport, R.I., which was the coming-out party for the league's three new members, Louisville athletics director Tom Jurich considered the notion that the Cardinals are expected to serve as the league's anchor in their first season as a member. The facts suggest as much. Louisville returns 17 starters from a team that finished 11-1 last season and sixth in the final Associated Press poll.
"If we're a team that people look to, so be it," Jurich said. "We want the bull's-eye on us in every sport, and we have it. I've been in other jobs when the bull's-eye isn't on us. That's not nearly as much fun."
Funny you should mention that. The strength and conditioning staff handed out T-shirts with bull's-eyes on them to the football players in January. A week later, coach Bobby Petrino wanted to know what moron approved them.
"I asked, 'What are we doing with those things on?'" Petrino asked. "The strength staff said, 'Coach, you said it was all right.' It was probably in the middle of recruiting. My wife tells me I do that with her, too.
"I don't want the players sitting out there as a target," he continued. "I'd rather we attack."
Petrino's mind sees things that others don't. That's how he has improved on the foundation that John L. Smith laid before leaving for Michigan State three years ago. The replacement T-shirts have a shark instead of a target. Across the front is the word ATTACK.
"It didn't cross my mind until he brought it up," senior weak-side linebacker Brandon Johnson said. "It was a big deal. We're not going to sit around and let people take potshots at us. We're going to go out and get people. It says a lot about his personality."
The Cardinals have the weapons to attack. Sophomore quarterback Brian Brohm and junior running back Michael Bush, got significant amounts of playing time last season as backups. In front of them is an offensive line with 99 cumulative starts, led by three-year starter Travis Leffew at weak tackle.
Johnson is the emotional leader and quarterback of the defense. A 6-foot-5, 218-pound senior from Birmingham, Ala., he says he turned away inquiries from Alabama and Auburn because he didn't want to go where he knew so many people.
Despite's the coach's concerns, the rest of the league is peering through its sights at Louisville. The Cardinals are an overwhelming favorite to win the Big East. From the standpoint of public perception, which views the conference as damaged football goods after the departures of Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College, Louisville is the quickest avenue to complete a round trip to respectability.
Overcoming the concerns of outsiders isn't high on the priority list of the coaches returning to the league. No programs -- or people, for that matter -- like to think of themselves as damaged goods.
"They should be the team picked to win the conference," UConn coach Randy Edsall said. "But I think if you're a competitor and you believe in your program, to say that Louisville's the school that is going to do everything to lead the conference out of the situation it is in, can be a little motivating. We still know we have to continue to grow and make strides. We have a right to do everything everybody else can. If I don't feel that way, I shouldn't be coaching."
Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese shepherded his league through its lowest point, and late last month, took his first vacation in three years. "There are a lot of coaches and a lot of players who think they can be the dominant program in this league," Tranghese said. "The fair point is, where are we in five years? Louisville has a leg up today."
The Big East of 2005 is a league that is difficult to handicap. Not only are there three new teams, but two of the five holdovers -- Pittsburgh and Syracuse -- have new coaches, guys who are taking over for coaches who had long tenures at their schools. Louisville might be the best team, or the Cardinals might be merely the most familiar port in the Big East's storm-roiled waters. Not only did the football team do well but Rick Pitino's basketball team went to the Final Four.
"All the success that Bobby has had," Jurich said, "I don't think I've seen him work harder than he has this season. Rick is the same way. Rick has accomplished everything there is. They believe their best days are in front of us. I believe that, too."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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