Note: I originally wrote this entry last week, but continued to push back publication. It's now clearly dated, but in the interests of full disclosure, here it is.
Does a difficult first year mean that a coach is doomed?
It's quite remarkable how far perceptions of Louisville football have changed in the past calendar year. Bobby Petrino had left for the NFL, but Steve Kragthorpe was seen as one of coaching's bright young stars, and his hire was universally praised. AD Tom Jurich was commended for quickly identifying his candidate and striking while the iron was hot.
It'd be hard for me to diagnose everything that went wrong with Louisville last season here. But the most remarkable thing to me is how easily things can snowball and go out of control. Suppose Andre Woodson slightly overthrows a key pass, they hold on vs. Syracuse, and the referees in the UConn game don't make a terrible call. Louisville could very well have finished last season 9-3, which would have been a disappointment, but not a death knell for the program. If that counterfactual held, does Louisville still have the offseason from hell during the past few months? Arguably, the sum of those incidents were far more troubling than anything that happened on the field in 2008.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that every team gets bad breaks. The biggest challenge of running a successful program is with being able to deal with adversity when it comes up. So far, the track record for Steve Kragthorpe in that department is mixed at best.
Trying to think of analogous situations to Louisville's 2007 aren't easy. New coaches have suffered through rebuilding years before, but none had quite a dramatic fall as the Cardinals did last year. Often, as when Les Miles replaced Nick Saban at LSU three years ago, the program kept chugging along with no appreciable dropoff.
With Colorado in 2006, WVU in 2001, South Carolina in 1999, and Oklahoma in 1996, the programs did not just struggle immediately. The bottoms completely fell out. More comparable is when Michigan State lost Nick Saban in 2000, as the Spartans regressed to mediocrity and never regained their edge. Ron Zook started off a disappointing 2002 at 8-5, and the Florida faithful subsequently never embraced him.
There's just not much of a track record either way of a coach taking over a successful program, having a mediocre first year, and then getting things back on track. The good news for Louisville this year is that they have an easy early schedule if they get past Kentucky. The best case scenario for them is building momentum, and hoping things take off once they get into the meat of the conference schedule. Along with Cincinnati, Louisville is by far the hardest team to get a handle on right now. 8-4 seems reasonable enough. Arguing about conference standings at this point is splitting hairs. The Big East looks very balanced from 1-7. There will be a lot of teams in the three-four win range, whose ultimate placement will entirely depend on luck and momentum.