In Louisville, hoops and horses yield to football

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – In a city hooked on long shots and jump shots, college football has long been a diversion, something for fall Saturdays before the horses start running at Churchill Downs and the Louisville basketball team packs Freedom Hall.

“There were good seats available, any day, any time with any number of people you wanted to bring as a guest,” Mayor Jerry Abramson said. “Those days are over.”

Are they ever.

Two decades ago, former coach Howard Schnellenberger – who led Miami to a national title in 1983 – later took a decidedly lower-profile job with the Cardinals. He raised more than a few eyebrows when he said Louisville was “on a collision course with the national championship, the only variable is time.” Those words have proved prophetic.

With a month to go in the season, No. 3 Louisville (8-0, 3-0 Big East) controls its destiny in the chase for a berth in the Bowl Championship Series title game.

And perhaps just as remarkable, football’s popularity is making inroads in a basketball town where March Madness never really ends.

Billboards with pictures of star players like quarterback Brian Brohm and the phrase “R U Ready?” line the freeways. Jerseys with No. 12 (Brohm) or No. 19 (injured running back Michael Bush) are the clothing option of choice at sparkling Papa John’s Stadium for home games.

And Internet chat rooms hum with speculation and jubilation over Louisville’s lofty ranking and the futures of Brohm and coach Bobby Petrino.

The basketball team, meanwhile, began practice three weeks ago with little fanfare. Rick Pitino’s team was in the Final Four less than two years ago but is coming off a 21-13 season and was relegated to the NIT.

Sure, there was the usual sellout crowd of more than 18,000 fans at Freedom Hall for an exhibition win over Georgetown (Ky.) College on Nov. 1. Yet most of the buzz wasn’t over freshman forward Derrick Caracter, but the football team’s chances against West Virginia the next night.

After coaching under the microscope for years – first at Kentucky, now at Louisville – Pitino doesn’t mind if the scrutiny shifts a little ways down the street from Freedom Hall to the aptly named Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex.

“It’s helping us in one sense in that it takes the attention away from us and let’s us focus in on ourselves,” said Pitino, whose team was not ranked in the preseason Top 25 in any major poll. “Our players see that kind of excellence and it only helps us.”

Former basketball coach Denny Crum led the Cardinals to NCAA titles in 1980 and 1986 and now co-hosts a sports talk show with former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall. Normally this time of year the phone lines are jammed with Kentucky and Louisville supporters already debating the outcome of their annual basketball clash.

Instead, Crum and Hall spend most of the show talking to callers theorizing over what the Cardinals have to do to make it to the BCS title game.

“The interest in the football team is off the scale and basketball’s taken kind of a hind seat,” Crum said. “I don’t think you’ll really start hearing about the basketball team until the football team loses.”

Which might not be until January, if at all. And unlike the football team’s last bout with success – Schnellenberger led the Cardinals to their only New Year’s bowl victory by winning the 1991 Fiesta Bowl only to leave four years later – Crum doesn’t think this year’s team is an aberration.

“I think where they’re at right now is where they’re going to stay,” Crum said. “This is something that’s only going to build.”

Literally. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich is proposing a plan that would expand capacity at Papa John’s Stadium – which isn’t even a decade old – from 42,000 to 63,600 by 2010. For the first time in the program’s history, there is a waiting list for season tickets and merchandise sales have never been stronger, thanks in large part to national television appearances the last few years under Petrino.

Petrino and Pitino insist they’re not trying to win a popularity contest. While the football team has all attention right now, the basketball program has all the championship banners.

“The tradition we have in basketball is something we’re trying to get to,” Petrino said.

Both coaches stop short of calling Louisville a “football school” or a “basketball school.” They feel there’s plenty of room for both.

“We’re very secure in who we are and what we stand for and we’re very humble about ourselves,” Pitino said. “We’re not looking to be king. Kings are for people who are part of royalty. We’re just looking to have our excellence when we play, that’s it.”