What Satterfield’s rapid restoration of Louisville football teaches us

On Saturday, the University of Louisville football team beat Virginia 28-21. I wasn’t at the game, didn’t see the celebration, couldn’t feel the excitement in the stadium, wasn’t there for coach Scott Satterfield’s post-game comments. But I’ve been witnessing those things all season.

When the Cardinals scored their first touchdown in the game, they surpassed their point total from all of last season. The remarkable thing about that is that we’re talking about virtually the same offensive guys who were on the field last season. But everything else has changed. The outlook. The expectation. The execution.

“Coaching matters,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said when asked about the turnaround at Louisville this season.

Louisville is two-thirds of the way through its first season under Satterfield. It has five wins, with four games left to play. The Cardinals might win one or more and get to a bowl game. They might lose all four.

None of those outcomes would change some of the things that this season at Louisville has taught us. A quick check of the scoresheet on that count:

1). Intangibles matter.

You do this job long enough, and a lot of those words you see on the motivational posters become just words. They are things we write about, but when it comes to making a real difference in real football games, they tend to fade in the presence of talent and speed and scheme.

“Culture,” as a rule, is an overrated concept in business and sport. Companies might have culture, but whatever the situation is in your individual department, that’s the culture for you. I suspect it’s the same with the football team. So when it comes to remaking the feel and vibe around the Louisville program, not only does Satterfield deserve a great deal of credit, but every member of his staff should take an equal share, too.

Beyond that, whatever the staff is doing, it has connected with the players and tapped into that part of them that brings out more.

Charlie Strong did this here probably better than anyone. It’s the “run through the brick wall for the coach” feel you get among players. It’s a little different with Satterfield. Strong was tough love, which is what the program needed after the Steve Kragthorpe era. After last season, these players needed to be “loved on,” as Satterfield said, but they also needed to be able to trust the coaching staff. Satterfield and his assistants won that trust, and the results are evident on the field.

Football is still about pure strength and speed and numbers. But for those of us who get jaded into thinking that some of these old-fashioned intangibles don’t matter, a look at this U of L season ought to set us straight.

When players are highly motivated and completely engaged, it matters.

2). Wins are good. Feel-good wins are better.

I am not going to pretend for a moment that Louisville fans weren’t having fun watching Lamar Jackson run all over defenses. The joy Jackson played with was one of the remarkable things I’ve seen in my years covering sports.

Jackson had help, but we all have to confess now, he’s pretty amazing in and of himself.

For Louisville fans, winning with Jackson felt good, and the program rose higher in public esteem that it had ever been. Full stop.

Having said that, however, when Louisville wins under Satterfield, part of the satisfaction for Cardinal fans is that it is doing so without the veneer of Bobby Petrino’s death stare or iron fist or forced smile. There is satisfaction in winning as an underdog, but there is more in winning in a way and with a team you can feel good about without reservation.

This is a tough thing to explain. Maybe I’m way off. But I felt that was something that was in danger of being lost once Charlie Strong departed for Texas. My feeling is that it has returned with the arrival of Satterfield.

3). Resilience is a great thing.

Cardinal coaches put up signs all over the Howard Schnellenberger Complex with the word “resilience” in bold letters the week before the Virginia win, but this is not about slogans.

Once things start to go bad, it’s difficult to turn them around. In anything. And in college sports, the first thing you generally see is a mass exodus of transfers. And at Louisville, there was some of that. I don’t begrudge guys, especially grad transfers, the chance to go elsewhere and try to have a special final season.

But these guys who stayed behind deserve a great deal of credit. Forget about being on the doorstep of a bowl game. Before the season, a great many people wondered – and with good reason – whether this team would win a single ACC game. The outlook was not good. Satterfield may not have promised only the Winston Churchill promise of “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” but it wasn’t far off. At least he threw in some mini-golf and some team parties.

Regardless, these guys went from being a punch line to throwing punches, in a competitive sense. They’ve earned every bit of respect they’ve gotten. And they’ve earned the right to expect even more.

Some of the most powerful stories sports have to offer are the comeback tales, the out-of-the-ashes narratives. Louisville football is enjoying one of its own, much faster than most expected.

4). Walk-ons deserve a chance.

Satterfield was a walk-on himself as a quarterback for coach Jerry Moore at Appalachian State. Guys who come out of that background understand that one of the most powerful things in life is opportunity.

When Satterfield awarded three walk-on players scholarships in April, it wasn’t just a great day for those players and their families. It was a great day for the other players. I was struck by a comment linebacker Dorian Etheredge made at ACC Media day, talking about the day those three were awarded scholarships.

“That was the best thing that has happened to be since I’ve been here – and it didn’t even happen to me,” he said.

One of the guys who caught a T-shirt that said, “FULL SCHOLLY” that day was Jack Fagot – who two games ago was in coverage when he snagged an interception of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence at the goal line. Another guy who caught a T-shirt was tight end Marshon Ford, who has become one of the most valuable members of the offense, both for his blocking and receiving.

Obviously, you’d rather have a roster full of blue-chip recruits. But football is a sport where work over time can produce gems. There are guys all over the country who prove that. Tyler Haycraft, a senior offensive lineman and former walk-on, proves that at Louisville every game.

The Cardinals have more than their share of those guys this season, and they are making an impact.

5). Satterfield is already ACC coach of the year.

Louisville might not win another game. I suspect they will, but regardless, given where the program was a season ago, nobody in the league has done a better job than Satterfield and his staff. If he gets the Cardinals to a bowl game, that should lock it up. But even if he doesn’t, to take a program from life support to where it is now, with no more depth than he has, and battling injuries at quarterback for much of the season, it’s a remarkable job that leaves fans, no doubt, anticipating what comes next.