LOUISVILLE And you thought Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham had problems. Try life in the Big East Conference.
When you're coaching a team with hopes of a national championship, you get a 10-minute honeymoon period. Then the cold winds blow.
Five games into his career at Louisville, Steve Kragthorpe is already under siege. His team is 3-2, with wins over a hodgepodge of States Murray (who?), Middle Tennessee (huh?) and North Carolina (ugh!) and losses to rival Kentucky (ouch!) and downtrodden Syracuse (oooh!).
"All anyone can judge is what happens on the field. And off," wrote Eric Crawford in the Louisville Courier-Journal, after linebacker Willie A. Williams was arrested recently for possession of marijuana and allegedly trying to swallow the evidence. "And though it's far too early to make a final judgment, the circumstantial evidence doesn't look good."
Welcome to today's Disappointment Bowl between Utah and Louisville, teams that haven't lived up to expectations. The game will be held at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. What can you say about a place named after a pizza chain, other than "I thought you said you deliver."
Today's contest could have far-reaching ramifications for the coaches. An early disappointment, the Cardinals were supposed to contend for a title in Kragthorpe's first season. Meanwhile, Whittingham is trying to turn around what began as a 1-3 season, including consecutive conference losses.
The loser of this game will be as popular as head lice with the hometown fans; the winner could use it as a springboard to salvage a disastrous season.
While nobody has dedicated a Web site to firing Whittingham (though there is one for offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig), someone has already launched www.firekragthorpe.com. It used to be coaches got five years before anyone got restless; now they don't even get to unpack.
The aforementioned Web site argues:
UL home game winning streak ended.
2-0 (start) and from the Top 10 to nowhere in a matter of 30 days.
First loss to UK since 2002.
UK's first (win over a) Top 10 team in 30 years.
Kragthorpe is responsible for all of this.
That both coaches would be embattled is largely due to expectations created by their predecessors. Each school lost up-and-coming coaches to bigger jobs. Louisville lost Bobby Petrino to the Atlanta Falcons, and before that John L. Smith went to Michigan State. Utah forfeited Urban Meyer to the Swamp.
In 2004, Utah and Louisville were relative nobodies, trying to upset the BCS monopoly. Utah did, winning the Fiesta Bowl. Louisville had to settle for a Liberty Bowl win over another team with BCS envy Boise State.
Three years later, Utah is still Utah, minus the No. 4 national ranking but still looking for respect. That isn't going to happen with a 2-3 record. Louisville is permanently in the BCS club, having jumped from Conference USA to the Big East. Last year the Cardinals finished the season ranked fifth, after an Orange Bowl win over Wake Forest.
For the likable Kragthorpe, the transition to his new job hasn't been smooth. Not only is his team struggling, but he has had to deal with off-the-field player problems. And the pressure continues, even though the Cardinals won last week. Asked by a reporter whether his personable nature might have caused UL to relax this year, Kragthorpe shot back: "Have you been in the meetings? Have you been on the practice field?"
No, but it doesn't look like his defense has, either. It gave up 111 points in a three-game span.
One of the biggest differences between programs is that Louisville got in the Big East, while Utah is still mired in a conference you can't find on TV without a GPS, a slide rule and a witching stick.
Yet they still have similarities. For instance, Louisville and Salt Lake both claim to be the home of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The first KFC was in Salt Lake on 39th South and State, though national headquarters are now in Louisville. This oddity seems appropriate for one reason: The team that loses could be cooked for the season.At which point someone is sure to ask: "Do you want that done original or extra crispy?"