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From Least To Beast
November 13, 2006
Two years after the Big East was almost disbanded, Louisville beat West Virginia in a Top 10 showdown that put the league back on the map. Next up: The No. 3 Cardinals meet undefeated Rutgers
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November 13, 2006

From Least To Beast

Two years after the Big East was almost disbanded, Louisville beat West Virginia in a Top 10 showdown that put the league back on the map. Next up: The No. 3 Cardinals meet undefeated Rutgers

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A tour of the mangled right thumb of Louisville junior quarterback Brian Brohm begins with a surgical scar that slices an arc across the bottom of the lower knuckle. North of that is a lump of swollen flesh which covers the coil of thin wire that doctors used to hold Brohm's ulnar collateral ligament in place while reattaching the ligament to the bone on Sept. 17. (Brohm had fallen on the thumb one day earlier, during a 31--7 victory over Miami.) Finally there is the tip of the thumb, pale and wrinkled from hours spent wrapped for treatment with ice and heat, deprived of light and alternately choked off from and engorged by its blood supply.

It looks less like a living body part than it does roadkill. "It actually looks better now," Brohm insisted on the afternoon of Oct. 30, wiggling the appendage admiringly three days before he used it to pass for 354 yards in the Cardinals' program-defining 44--34 victory over West Virginia. His statement tests the imagination. Yet his thumb speaks volumes, an unlikely instrument of success in what has become a season of unlikely success for Louisville and the reborn Big East Conference.

This Thursday night in a modest stadium in Piscataway, N.J., unbeaten Rutgers (8--0), which has not been such a player in college football since it took part in the very first game 137 years ago, will host the No. 3--ranked Cardinals (also 8--0), who will be launching a four-game homestretch that could send them to the BCS national championship game (barring poll or computer judgments that could elevate a one-loss team from a conference perceived as stronger).

Big-game atmosphere has already descended on the Rutgers campus (it remains to be seen whether locals will recognize it), as athletic department officials are trucking in 2,000 bleacher seats, expanding the capacity of Rutgers Stadium to more than 43,000. Students will spill onto a grassy hillside behind the south end zone for the first time in the school's history.

"Our practice fields were a little wet, so we worked out in the stadium last night," said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano last Friday. "Our players walked down the hill into the stadium and they could see the new bleachers. That was pretty exciting."

That any Big East school--much less Louisville and Rutgers on national TV on back-to-back November Thursdays--could host a game with national championship implications was unthinkable just two years ago when the conference, crippled by the defections of Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC, teetered on the brink of extinction. "The low point came when it appeared that our members were ready to dissolve something we had all started [in 1979]," said conference commissioner Mike Tranghese at halftime of Louisville's rollicking win over West Virginia. A sea of black shirts on Black Out Thursday at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium demonstrated how far the league has come from the dark days that Tranghese described.

It did not happen instantly. Louisville joined the conference (both the eight-team football league and the sprawling 16-team basketball version) for the 2005 football season and was regarded as critical to the Big East's revival. Coach Bobby Petrino was a respected offensive innovator who had been hired in December 2002, and one of his early recruits was Brohm, a homegrown Trinity High quarterback who had appeared on the cover of the Nov. 18, 2002, edition of Sports Illustrated.

A 6'4", 224-pound classic thrower, Brohm turned down Notre Dame and Tennessee to stay home, following in the football footsteps of his father, Oscar, and his older brothers, Greg and Jeff. At the press conference at which he announced his decision to sign his letter of intent, Brian said, "I do think we have the ability to move forward and compete for a national championship." Those words were regarded as folly by most college football insiders, who also howled when, as Louisville's coach in 1989, Howard Schnellenberger pronounced in his unmistakable basso profundo, through a swirl of pipe smoke, "We're on a collision course with the national championship; the only variable is time."

Schnellenberger didn't win a title, but he did put Louisville on the football map, thanks in part to a 10-1-1 season in 1990. Last fall the Cardinals scored a total of 94 points in season-opening victories over Kentucky and Oregon State and appeared poised to carry the conference to national prominence. That plan collapsed, however, in Louisville's Big East debut, a desultory 45--14 loss to South Florida in a two-thirds-empty NFL stadium in Tampa. Tranghese sat alone in a press box seat that night. "This was supposed to be our best team," he recalls. The Cardinals were 0--1 in their Big East career. Some flagship.

It was West Virginia that redeemed the Big East in 2005, beating a respected SEC team, Georgia, 38--35 in the Sugar Bowl, matching the Bulldogs in speed and power and awakening the college football nation to the potential of a conference presumed dead.

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