Sports

Mark Story: U of L fans down but not out

From here in Lexington, it sounds like your typical Kentucky-Louisville football week.

You hear that U of L has no chance — zip, zilch, zero — to beat UK.

That the Louisville coach is a loser.

That Kentucky is clearly the superior football program.

Ah, but there is quite the twist to the underlying soundtrack of Governor's Cup 2009: The verbal smackdown on U of L football is mostly coming from Louisville fans.

In the modern history of our state's marquee football rivalry, I've never seen the Cardinals side of the great Blue-Red divide so dispirited heading into the big game.

"I expect UK to win by three or four scores," said Joel Shaffer, a U of L backer in Jacksonville, Fla. "Most of the Louisville faithful think so, too."

Gerry Hench — known to Lexington sports talk radio listeners as "Louisville Gerry" — said, "I think we are going to get whipped this Saturday. Probably, we'll get stomped."

Paul Rogers, the radio play-by-play voice of U of L sports, said the mood among Cardinal Nation is "not real optimistic. People are not really into this football team at the moment."

It is a stunning reversal from just three years ago, 2006, when Louisville backers were Park Avenue-smug heading into the Governor's Cup matchup with UK.

Back then, Bobby Petrino was calling clever plays for a loaded roster that included hometown heroes Michael Bush and Brian Brohm.

Back then, it was the Kentucky fan base that registered between apathy and anger as Rich Brooks — with his 9-25 record at UK — began his fourth season by getting run out of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium 59-28.

Back then seems a long, long time ago.

In the now, Petrino has long since bailed. Brooks has righted the good ship Kentucky, including beating U of L twice in a row.

It is the incumbent Louisville coach, Steve Kragthorpe, who has a raging inferno beneath his seat.

Inheriting a program that went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl in the 2006 season, Kragthorpe will enter Commonwealth Stadium Saturday with a 12-13 record and no bowl trips to show for his time in Louisville.

Steve Patterson — known to Lexington sports talk radio listeners as "Louisville Lou" — said Kragthorpe "hasn't done anything right. He is Bill Curry all over again."

Joe Champa, a longtime multi-sport Louisville season ticket holder, said, "for what we got used to with Petrino, this has been hard to take. We haven't seen anything in the last two years that suggests to us that Kragthorpe can get it done."

So virulent has been the Krag criticism among U of L fans, it's swung one Louisville follower in the opposite direction.

"I'm in Krag's corner," Hench said. "It's absolutely amazing that our fan base has become so spoiled so quickly. If Krag loses (Saturday), I think things probably go downhill quickly. So I hope he sticks it to people."

For Big Blue backers relishing the Cardinals' meltdown, a word of caution. In 2002, Kentucky went to Louisville having lost 17 of its prior 22 games. It had a head coach, Guy Morriss, who was seen by many in the Kingdom of the Blue as a placeholder at best.

U of L was ranked 17th in the country. The Cards were a 12-point favorite.

No one gave UK a chance.

UK won 22-17.

That one victory dramatically changed the perception of Morriss in his fan base. It lifted Kentucky to a winning season few saw coming.

Like a parched man wandering the Mojave needs an oasis, Kragthorpe needs that kind of win Saturday.

"It would be a huge step," said Rogers, the U of L radio announcer. "There will always be non-believers, and some of the fans have thoroughly convinced themselves already he's not the guy no matter what he does.

"But if Louisville were to win this game, it would be a big statement for Steve and for Tom Jurich that they are doing this the right way and it is going to work."

This week, many have been asking whether the majority of Cardinals backers really want to see Kragthorpe beat UK on Saturday or whether they'd rather see a loss if it might make a coaching change more certain.

"I think Kragthorpe is in over his head," Patterson said. "But I want him to win Saturday."

Said Shaffer: "I would never hope or wish for a U of L loss to UK."

Added Champa: "Any Louisville fan who says they don't want to beat Kentucky under any condition in any sport is full of crap."

That, at least, sounds like the normal voice of Louisville fans on the week of a Kentucky game.

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