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The Vault: How John L. Smith led UofL football to its greatest recovery

After the Cards had two losing seasons from 1995 to 1997, John L. Smith was hired to help the team bounce back to prominence.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In 1997, John L Smith quickly became an intriguing coaching candidate by turning Utah State into a high-powered offense.

Meanwhile, Louisville was lost, and the Cards had just wrapped up a 1-10 season.

On Nov. 24, 1997, UofL athletic director Tom Jurich hired Smith, knowing he could turn the program around swiftly.

"We need to get it going in the proper direction and think by holding out for another month or, so it was just going to harm us. I think when you have the opportunity to get a guy like him, you have to be very aggressive," Jurich said.

That urgency to hire Smith paid off in his first season as the cards went 7-5, had the sixth overall offense in Division 1-A, and won the Keg of Nails from then Conference USA rival Cincinnati in a 62-19 rout.

The 1999 season started off with a win over the Card’s deepest opponent, Kentucky, for the Governor's Cup.

The Cards would win 56-28 with quarterback, Chris Redman, marveling at how much they had improved even from a year ago.

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Louisville coach John L. Smith playfully pulls on the ears of wide receiver Deion Branch as they wait for the team picture during media day Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2000, in Louisville, Ky. Louisville opens the season at home against Kentucky on Sept. 2. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

"Oh man. It is night and day. We really deserve this. We have been through a lot of tough times. We really deserve this," he said.

The first two seasons of Smith's tenure were successful, but still the Cards finished third in Conference USA both years. The year 2000 would be different though.

They had developed talent and depth. They didn't need to be lucky. Led by Deion Branch, Dave Ragone and Tony Stallings, Louisville would win the conference with 6-1 record and a 9-3 record overall.

Having rejuvenated a program in short order, Tom Jurich knew he had to offer an extension to Smith before he was poached by another team.

On Nov. 28, 2000, Smith signed a new eight-year contract to remain with the Cards. He emphasized that his environment here made it an easy decision.

"These players that you are around. The people that you work for. The city. The fans. I mean what more can you ask for?", he said. It didn't hurt that to guilt trip him either. "We kind of give him a look. We kind of give him a sad look. You know. Please stay. He ain't going to leave us. He's not going to leave us."

Before the 2002 GMAC Bowl, Smith was contacted about taking the Michigan State job. Jurich had a problem with how the situation played out. He did understand that the situation though. Having won two Conference USA titles and leading them to five consecutive bowl games had made Smith a coaching commodity too hot for UofL to hold onto.

"I've had five to ten schools a year come after John L I think that is part of the business and I understand it and I knew there was a day that John L would be leaving," Jurich said.

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Louisville coach John L. Smith yells at officials during the first half of Louisville's 38-15 loss to Marshall in the GMAC Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2002. Smith will talk with Michigan State about its football coaching vacancy on Thursday. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said Wednesday night that he granted permission for Spartans officials to talk with Smith. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Getting a more lucrative contract in East Lansing didn't mean this was an easy choice for Smith. He was emotionally invested in this team.

The end of his time may have left a bitter taste in UofL fans' mouths but during his tenure he helped resurrect a flatlining program and brought respect back to Louisville.

Smith would win Big Ten Coach of the Year in his first season at Michigan State before being fired in 2006.

He would later return to Kentucky in 2016 to coach the Kentucky State Thorobreds, before being fired after 2018 season after going 0-10.

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