Louisville players filed out of the visiting locker room in Syracuse with eyes downcast, straight into a dreary late afternoon in Central New York, the day reflective of their mood.
The Cardinals no longer had their unbeaten season, and would no longer have their top-10 ranking in a matter of hours, either. But the reality is: This is still a dream season for Louisville -- and athletic director Tom Jurich.
It is why coach Charlie Strong has continued to call this a special season, both after the loss Saturday and again Monday. “There are bigger goals that can be met,” Strong said.
The loss should be kept in perspective, and that is hard in the minutes and hours after a game. But remember, Louisville just posted the best start in school history at 9-0. If they win their final two games, the Cardinals get to the second BCS bowl in school history.
“It’s really a credit to Charlie,” Jurich said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. “He had a great vision and he knew what he wanted. My first meeting with him, I saw how focused he was, how organized he was. He certainly had a mind for it. I don’t think this is surprising to him. But it’s been a great, great year.”
Yet what is even more encouraging for Jurich: Louisville is ahead of schedule. Strong may have expected his team to rise quickly, but Jurich has been pleasantly surprised that it has happened in just three years.
Louisville went from a team that finished with one conference win in 2009 to one that is in control of its Big East destiny in 2012. The transformation has been so fast, that fans once happy with a win over Kentucky have jacked up their expectations with each passing week.
All of this has set the stage for Louisville to thrive as a program down the line, whether it ends up winning the Big East or not.
“The sky’s the limit,” Jurich said. “We’re an extremely young team. I’ve been an athletic director for 28 years and this is the first time I can say we’re a young team that is experienced. Those two usually don’t go hand in hand, so that’s a good sign.”
The success, of course, has made Strong one of the hottest coaching names in college football. That will not change despite one blemish this season. The questions about how long he intends to stay will continue to come at him, and Strong will continue to bat them away as best he can.
So will Jurich. When I asked him about the continued queries, Jurich laughed and said I was the first person that day to ask about Strong.
“What I’ve always said is you always want people looking at your coaches,” Jurich said. “It usually means you have the right coach. I’ve had it the other way when people weren’t looking at my coaches and it usually doesn’t work out good. He’s a quality guy, and I’m sure a lot of people have looked at him but he’s a great fit at Louisville.
“It’s a community that’s embraced him, a university that’s embraced him. He’s got an athletic director that loves him. I’m going to do everything in my power to keep him here. I would hate to see him go anywhere else.”
Money, Jurich says, is not an issue.
I believe all that. Jurich will do whatever he can to keep Strong. Still, what strikes me the most every time I hear Strong’s name being thrown around for other jobs is how this man was unwanted as a head coach just four years ago. Strong had worked hard to mold himself into head-coaching material, with quality jobs working for some of the best coaches in the business.
He had the door shut in his face more times than he will probably ever share. A stand-up guy like Jurich gave Strong an opportunity. Why? “I’m probably a little different than most ADs. I don’t worry about what anybody else thinks,” Jurich said. “I don’t really operate with search firms. I do my own research. I go with my own gut.”
Now a few years later, people wonder whether Jurich will lose his head coach because … well, he was visionary enough to give Strong a chance when nobody else would.
“He’s earned that,” Jurich said. “I studied him for a long, long time. He was the only candidate I had. I knew what he could do. … I don’t think he has a wandering eye. I don’t think every job is going to appeal to him because he’s got a great job and I think he knows that, and I think he cherishes it.”
There is truth to what Jurich says. He is not spinning a tale, and neither is Strong when he maintains how much he loves Louisville. Nobody knows what the future holds, but the present day says Strong has laid the foundation for Louisville to thrive well into the future -- and to have a shot at a very special season.