This Friday, Utah and Louisville will meet for the first time since the two christened the newly renovated Rice-Eccles Stadium. That was in 1998 and things have dramatically changed for both programs. Yet there are some striking similarities between the two that can't really be ignored. Since that game in 1998, Louisville has gone 84-32, while Utah 71-39. Both programs have gone through three coaches -- John L. Smith, Bob Petrino and Steve Kragthorpe for Louisville, Ron McBride, Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham for Utah. And it's been that third coach for both Utah and Louisville who has come under fire the most. That is where the comparisons between the two programs become even more evident.
Of course we know Utah's history. Ron McBride was fired after a 5-6 season in 2002 and replaced by Urban Meyer. Meyer then took Utah to an unreal 22-2 record over his two here, a stop that culminated in Utah becoming the first non-BCS team to play in a BCS bowl game. That success drew Meyer away from Salt Lake, as he went on to replace Ron Zook at Florida. Meyer was then replaced by Kyle Whittingham, who has had a difficult time living up to the success Meyer brought to Utah. On the Louisville side of things, it doesn't appear to be that much different.
In 2002, the same year McBride left Utah, John L. Smith bolted for Michigan State. His replacement, Bob Petrino, served as the offensive coordinator under Smith and his short stay in the Blue Grass State was nearly as short lived as Meyer's at Utah. In the four years Petrino guided the Cardinals, they went 41-9 and his most successful season ended with the program's first trip to a BCS bowl game, the Orange Bowl. Shortly after their victory over Wake Forest, Petrino left for the NFL and Louisville quickly hired Steve Kragthorpe away from Tulsa. And like Whittingham, Kragthorpe has already strugged, even though he's in only his first season there. Louisville lost a heart breaker to bitter rival Kentucky and then an inexplicable game to a Syracuse team that lost to Miami of Ohio Saturday. That has quickly put Kragthorpe alongside Whittingham on the hot seat, especially when you consider the Cardinals were expected to do so much this season. Brian Brohm opted to return to Louisville instead of going to the NFL in hopes of winning the Heisman and possibly leading the Cardinals to a national championship. There he joined a list of offensive weapons, but it appears the offense is not capable of carrying a rather mediocre defense.
Yet there are differences. Firstly, Kragthorpe still can turn things around at Louisville, while Kyle is in his third year here at Utah. Secondly, the teams both coaches took over can't be compared. Kyle had to replace almost his entire offense, while Kragthorpe walked into a gold mine. And of course there is the not so minor fact that Louisville is now a BCS team, when Utah continues to sit in a conference with a TV deal that's less connected to the population than the internet in the 1980s. Louisville obviously has a far easier road to success than Utah and I expect that to really be the definitive difference between the two programs in the future. The Cardinals can compete for a national championship, when Utah isn't likely to even sniff that spot. And so while things have stayed the same over many remarkable changes since 1998, one big thing hasn't and that's because Utah is still stuck in the Mountain West Conference, while Louisville lives it up on the sunny beaches of the BCS.