University of Louisville

New era for Louisville football: Love leads to fun, which leads to improvement

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Shortly after Mike Sirignano arrived in December as Louisville football’s new strength and conditioning coach, he had a telling exchange with quarterback Malik Cunningham.

Perhaps because a scheduled “recovery day” meant no serious pumping of iron, Cunningham playfully asked if Sirignano would be grilling dinner for players that evening.

Sirignano surprised Cunningham by saying, “Yeah. How many people are coming?”

In recalling this conversation, Cunningham said, “Next thing you know, six o’clock that night, Coach Mike was on the grill cooking for us.”

The change of culture that new U of L Coach Scott Satterfield is trying to establish prompted an obvious follow-up question: how often last season did players go to a coach’s home for a cookout?

“Uh, not much,” Cunningham said with a chuckle. “Not none at all.”

On Satterfield’s staff, Sirignano is hardly a coaching wild Card. Offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford said he buys a lot of pork bellies, ribs and ground beef for grilling. His wife, Meredith, makes cookies for these occasions.

As the players told it, the contrast with Bobby Petrino’s final season is striking. Never mind home cooking. In 2018, many players did not even know where Petrino’s office was, linebacker Rodjay Burns said.

Some players did not want to know.

“People were scared to go see how he was doing,” Cunningham said of Petrino. “He wasn’t a good people person. But he was a good coach.”

Last season was a debacle. Louisville did not win a conference game for the first time since 1997. The Cards gave up 50 or more points in seven games, including the last five. As players recalled it, the Cards also gave up the football ghost.

“I feel like we all clocked in last year,” offensive tackle Mekhi Becton said. “That’s why the season was all bad.”

Then he corrected himself. “Clocked out,” he said of the players’ attitudes. “… We didn’t want to play last year.”

The lack of interest showed. The Cardinals did not win a game after Sept. 15, and they lost their last four games by an average margin of 45 points.

Enter Satterfield, who made a point of saying there was no right and wrong in the contrast between 2018 and 2019. It was simply a matter of different approaches. He attributed his approach to having begun playing quarterback at age seven. “

You have to be even-keeled to play quarterback,” he said. “It was kind of ingrained in me early.” Laid back — mixed with a competitive spirit, Satterfield said — worked at Appalachian State.

“You can’t just always cuss somebody out 24/7, every time you see them,” he told an audience of reporters on U of L football’s media day. “Who likes that? Raise your hand. Anybody like that?”

No one raised a hand.

Satterfield said he did not want “a bunch of screamers” on his staff, but there are times a coach must yell. Just not constantly.

“You have to show love,” Satterfield said. “Show them some praise, man.”

When speaking with Louisville players, it was obvious they liked the change.

“It’s just a new wave,” Cunningham said. “How can I say it? It’s more fun.”

Becton spoke of a “whole difference” in coaching approach. “Like, it’s not a dictatorship,” he said. “Like, they listen.”

Becton recalled the coaches asking each player to bring a picture of his “why” to preseason camp. This meant a picture that represented the player’s motivation. Becton brought a picture of his grandmother, Crystal, who he said died of breast cancer about a decade ago.

“I always told her I was going to make the NFL just for her,” Becton said. “Everything I do is for her.”

The cookouts and other changes of culture instituted by Satterfield are not merely testament to a creed that says the team that eats together competes together and beats opponents together.

“It’s enjoyment,” Satterfield said. “You have fun every day, that’s how you get better.”

Scouting report

Head coach: Scott Satterfield (first season at Louisville, 51-24 in six seasons at Appalachian State).

Last season: 2-10 overall, 0-8 in the ACC.

Returning starters: 17 (seven on offense, eight on defense, plus kicker Blanton Creque, who made 10 of 12 field-goal attempts last season, and punter Mason King, who averaged 40.6 yards per punt).

Outlook: A start-over with a new coach includes an element of do-over. The 2018 season was an embarrassment. The Cardinals’ offensive line gave up 43 sacks, which were part of 93 plays that resulted in tackles for loss. The defense gave up 52 or more points in each of the season’s final five games.

This sparked talk of players adopting individual agendas, becoming alienated from their coaches and suffocating in a toxic atmosphere.

Enter Satterfield, who welcomes being seen as a “laid-back” coach and has talked about “loving them up,” them being the players. Satterfield led App State’s transition from FBS to the FCS level. That transition included winning the Sun Belt Conference championship the last three seasons.

Satterfield said he will define success in 2019 in terms of attitude and effort rather than victory and defeat.

Question marks: Depth is the over-riding concern. There was a “pretty big, significant drop off” between the starters and backups, Satterfield said. “The depth issue is going to be a critical factor for us.”

Going into preseason camp, the decision on who will be the starting quarterback was unsettled. Juwan Pass, who was Lamar Jackson’s backup in 2017, threw eight touchdown passes and 12 interceptions last season. Other candidates are Malik Cunningham, who led U of L in rushing (473 yards) last season, and “true” freshman Evan Conley, who committed to Appalachian State before following Satterfield to Louisville.

Game of the year: Notre Dame at Louisville, Sept. 2. Because, well, Notre Dame is Notre Dame. And it will be the first time Notre Dame will play a game anywhere in Kentucky. And the game will open the curtain on what U of L hopes will be a successful new era.

Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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