When Louisville natives Myron Pryor and Garry Williams came out of high school in 2004, the Louisville Cardinals were on the fast track to becoming a national program. They had won nine games in Bobby Petrino’s first year on the job and were headed for even bigger things with local products Brian Brohm and Michael Bush on board.
Kentucky? Rich Brooks had just wheezed his way through a 4-8 campaign in his first year at the helm, and things would get progressively worse thanks in large part to NCAA probation. Many wondered whether there would ever be light at the end of the tunnel.
When Alfonso Smith signed with UK out of Louisville Waggener the following February, the Cards were fresh off an 11-1 season while the Cats had limped home to 2-9.
U of L showed some interest in Pryor, Williams and Smith, but the trio ultimately decided to choose Kentucky when Kentucky wasn’t cool.
Now that decision doesn’t look like such a head-scratcher. The UK program got through probation and has posted back-to-back eight-win seasons and Music City Bowl wins. Louisville Coach Steve Kragthorpe is trying to rebuild the Cards after they fell to 6-6 in his first season last fall.
“It’s funny how things changed,” Smith said. “But I really felt like I was making the right decision all along in coming here. I knew Kentucky was headed in the right direction.”
“When I first got here, I said, ‘This might be a good program in a couple of years,” Williams said. “Now it’s a great program. Guys leave, coaches leave; programs have to go through rebuilding phases. You really never know what’s going to happen.”
The three Louisville natives have all played big parts in UK’s rebuilding efforts.
Williams is going into his third season as the anchor of the offensive line at left tackle, and Pryor has been a stalwart at defensive tackle. The two have combined for 51 starts. Smith, a junior tailback, has shown flashes of brilliance and will be a key cog in UK’s rushing attack this fall.
The Wildcats would continue to pick up more help from the Derby City. Maurice Grinter originally signed with U of L in 2005, but he was late getting approval from the NCAA Clearinghouse. By the time he was cleared, the Cards had used their allotment of scholarships and asked Grinter to grayshirt. He enrolled at UK instead.
In 2006, Kentucky got perhaps its biggest coup out of Louisville during the Brooks era. In addition to St. Xavier offensive lineman Justin Jeffries, UK beat out schools such as Michigan for defensive tackle Corey Peters, a four-star prospect out of Louisville Central. Offensive coordinator Joker Phillips has secured a commitment from another Central lineman, Mister Cobble, for Kentucky’s 2009 class and is also in the mix for Cobble’s teammate, Ridge Wilson, a three-star linebacker.
Phillips has been the staff’s main recruiter in Louisville.
“Louisville’s very important for us,” Phillips said. “There are 28 schools in the city of Louisville, so we’ve got to be good there. A lot of Louisville kids talk about how much they love Louisville and they don’t want to leave, but we try to convince them that it’s not that far, and we’ll bring them home to play Louisville every other year.”
Pryor said he grew up a Cardinal fan and said he was skeptical about leaving the city, but he now says it was the best thing that could have happened to him.
“I just needed to get away from the city,” Pryor said. “If I had stayed in Louisville, I’d have still been living at my mom’s house, hanging out with the same guys.”
Peters and Smith both said they were leery of Petrino.
“I didn’t really trust the leadership there,” Peters said. “And it ended up being confirmed. But at the end of the day, I felt like Kentucky was a better fit for me.”
Going home had been difficult for the Wildcats from Louisville, as the Cards had beaten them four straight years (2003-2006). But the Cats finally broke through last fall and will look for their first winning streak in the series since 1997-98.
“You’d hear all this talk from Louisville fans all the time, but the best part is to prove them wrong,” Williams said. “That’s why we’re out here working so hard, so we can prove them wrong again.”
Most of the UK players from Louisville have Cardinal fans among their families and friends. They’ve managed to convert some, but not all.
“There’s still about 50 percent of them who are haters,” Pryor said.
“My brother-in-law is a big U of L fan, so when I’ve got to go into his room to use the computer, there’s U of L stuff everywhere,” Smith said. “But I mess with him about last year’s win, and this game coming up.”
Peters said he manages to avoid the trash talk and prefers to be philosophical when addressing Louisville fans.
“Even if you don’t like Kentucky, you have to admit that we’ve come a long way from where we were,” he said. “You don’t have to like us, but you should respect us.”