Since his hiring as the Cardinals’ head football coach, Charlie Strong has talked about changing the culture at Louisville. He constantly mentions the state of the program and taking its prestige to the national level. His assistant coaches complain about the fan base’s pesky habit of showing up late to home games.
It has been clear from the start that Strong runs an incredibly tight ship. Strong has brought a level of discipline and insulation unprecedented in a Louisville locker room.
For the most part, Strong’s policies have worked. He has helped a program on the edge of obscurity climb its way back into the upper echelons of college football. During his three seasons here, Strong has made almost every decision pay off for the program in one way or another. Entering arguably the biggest season in its history, who could blame Strong for adding new layers of insulation.
However, that insulation has reached new levels with Monday’s announcement that the annual fan day will be without the traditional autograph signing session.
Coach Strong cited the “national problem” of autographs being peddled by dealers on EBay and other online memorabilia websites. Strong told ESPN’s Joe Tessitore that he wanted to “protect the players.”
Instead of protecting the players, Strong has only aided the men they set out to stop. Autograph dealers across America can sleep easier tonight knowing come Sunday there won’t be a few thousand more autographs of Teddy Bridgewater lying around.
Protecting Bridgewater’s eligibility is completely understandable. God forbid Louisville loses its golden goose right before the spotlight glows brightest. However, why alienate the average fan? Aren’t there other options? Is a ban on autographs really the best answer?
The University of Miami announced that team members would only be able to sign the school-provided team poster at its annual fan day. Why isn’t this a viable option for Louisville athletics?
Sure, autographs are small grapes, but what’s next? Fans who don’t have their “*****” in the seats by game time won’t get in the stadium? Mandated dress codes? Ok, it’s ridiculous, but you get the picture.
I grew up in New York City and was enamored with the Yankees. I can remember my first game at Yankee stadium, having incredible seats. I was ecstatic; I felt like a man amongst gods. When I moved to Louisville and got into UofL sports one of the first things I recognized was how much closer the players felt. Even though I spent my first Cardinal games in the nosebleeds I still identified with the players more. I still felt like they were more accessible than the New York Yankees ever were.
This is the issue with Strong’s insulation of Louisville football and the trend toward more professional college teams in general. The more athletic departments insulate their players from the outside world, risk of infractions or not, the more separated the players become. There’s something special about being a kid and meeting Teddy Bridgewater. You get to see how similar you are.
Take the little things like that away and University of Louisville football isn’t the same. It’s just another group of players on the field.
One autograph session isn’t going to change that for good, but it is hard not to notice the tide moving in that direction. It may be easy to keep these players in fancy practice facilities and locker rooms. Build them incredible dorms that have their own cooks, so a Teddy Bridgewater can avoid autograph seekers on his way to lunch.
However, if you deny access to fans, it is only a matter of time before we lose the things that make Louisville athletics special.
Strong did offer fans a consolation prize for “fan day” attendance. There will be a scrimmage in full pads. It may be something the public hasn’t seen this fall, but it isn’t any different than the Red-White Game held every spring.
All in all, fans aren’t likely to cause a huge ruckus about one day of autographs. But Strong and his staff have to realize sooner or later, Louisville fans aren’t going to be all the things Florida, Alabama, or LSU fans can be. But they are special in their own way. Some changes are certainly welcome but some things aren’t going to change.
Good luck getting those fans in their seats on time.