How Tennessee State University Helped Louisville Become A Football Power

By Bighamp76
Nov. 01, 2016

Louisville's Lamar Jackson has helped the Cardinals become one of America's top ranked teams.
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

We are accustomed to seeing the University of Louisville ranked in the nation's top 10...... in basketball. The Cardinals are one of college basketball’s traditional powers.

However, to see the University of Louisville football program among the nation's best  is another matter.  Currently, the 7-1 Cardinals  are the No. 7 team in America. Credit  coach Bobby Petrino for  an outstanding job of recruiting players such as quarterback Lamar Jackson. , the electric signal-caller, who is the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy.

The rise of Louisville football is a long time coming.  It was a long climb that started more than 30 years ago,  when Tennessee State University Tigers made the trek north on I-65 from Nashville to Louisville.

In 1981, coach John Merritt’s undefeated Big Blue Tigers traveled to Louisville and defeated the Cardinals 40-32.

Then, in 1984 the Tigers, coached by Bill Thomas, made a return trip to Louisville, for homecoming.


TSU took the fact that Louisville scheduled them for homecoming as a sign of disrespect. It was not by accident. Louisville was planning to put a thumping on TSU, and show the earlier loss in ’81 was nothing more than a fluke.  The plan did not work. The Tigers were undefeated, and the nation’s No. 1 team in Division I-AA. The Tigers were a physical, fast, team that played with an attitude.

TSU spoiled Louisville’s homecoming, handing the Cardinals a 24-15 defeat. The final score does not indicate the dominance, and the physical pounding the Tigers delivered that day in a driving rainstorm.

There is no question losing twice to TSU made the University of Louisville re-think their commitment to the sport of football.


"I really think that game made them (Louisville) take a serious look at their program," said Thomas "Letting a little school from Nashville come into their place and beat them on their homecoming was not a good look for the school and alumni.

“After that game, they seemed to make a commitment to upgrading the program,” Thomas added. “They brought in coach Howard Schnellenberger, and upgraded their facilities. They put an emphasis on football that has led to what you see from them today. I really don’t think that would have happened if we hadn’t beat them so soundly.”

Howard Schnellenberger

Schnellenberger was regarded as one of the nation's top college football coaches in the 80's and early 90's, having coached at the University of Miami. Leaving Miami to come to Louisville (his hometown) was big news at the time. To have a coach of Schnellenberger's stature legitimized the Cardinals football program. Schnellenberger was responsible for the serious infusion of cash from alumni, and university committing to build a new stadium on-campus. Those who follow U. of L. football will tell you that Schnellenberger was the catalyst of it all

There is a very good reason the Louisville football program is housed in the 'Howard Schnellenberger  Complex'. But it likely would have never happened without that embarrassing loss to the Tennessee State University Tigers.


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