Utah football: Utah game a homecoming for Louisville coach Kragthorpe
Louisville football coach Steve Kragthorpe dismissed any thoughts this week that his Louisville team might be affected by Utah's altitude.
"We're not freaking going to play on Mount Everest here," he said. "We're going to 4,200 feet. It's not that big of a deal."
That he knows the elevation of Salt Lake City speaks to a familiarity level with the opponents and area that few of his coaching peers possess.
Then again, playing at Utah isn't just another nonconference game for the Cardinals' coach. It's a homecoming.
Unfortunately for Kragthorpe, this particular return visit brings a greater challenge than remembering the faces of long forgotten nieces and nephews. It's about getting his slumping program on the right track again and possibly saving his job.
Kragthorpe, whose brother, Kurt, is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune , spent much of his childhood in Utah.
His father, Dave, was an assistant coach at BYU and later the head coach at Idaho State (where he won a national title) and Oregon State, as well as serving a two-year stint as Utah State's athletic director.
Even though he never played for or attended Utah or BYU, Kragthorpe's early football life is intertwined with the two schools.
The first college game he attended, when he was only 4 months old, was at Utah in 1965 when his father was a Montana assistant and saw his team lose to the Utes 28-13.
Kragthorpe began his high school career as a member of Provo's freshman team in 1979 because the quarterback at the time was Sean Covey, who'd later play for BYU.
That same year Kragthorpe worked as a spotter for Paul James on BYU radio broadcasts, the same time Utah's Kyle Whittingham was a sophomore linebacker.
As a college head coach, Kragthorpe is 0-1 against BYU and 0-2 against the Utes. Kragthorpe's Tulsa team lost to BYU in 2006, which started the Cougars' 18-game home winning streak.
Against the Utes, Kragthorpe's Tulsa team lost to Utah in the 2006 Armed Forces Bowl as part of Utah's eight-game bowl winning streak. Louisville's loss to Utah in 2007 was the second win in Utah's run of 23 wins in 24 games.
Despite his ties to the area, Kragthorpe's return is more about reviving Louisville's program than it is reliving childhood memories.
Louisville is coming off a 31-27 loss to rival Kentucky, the latest in a string of disappointing losses for the Cardinals in recent seasons.
Kragthorpe was one of the hottest coaches in football when he was named Bobby Petrino's replacement at Louisville after turning Tulsa's program into a winner.
But since his reign began in 2007, Kragthorpe has gone from being a hot coach to one on the hot seat.
The Cardinals went 6-6 in 2007 after starting the season ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll. Last year the Cardinals went 5-7, a run that included a 63-14 loss to Rutgers.
Expectations were low for 2009, with the Cardinals picked to finish seventh in the eight-team Big East Conference.
The Cardinals showed they might have more life to them than expected as they almost upset Kentucky on Saturday. A fumbled kickoff return that led to Kentucky's final score and an interception on the potentially game-winning drive by Louisville quarterback Justin Burke resulted in a 31-27 loss.
The defeat was an emotional one for the Cardinals and for Kragthorpe, who later apologized for some of the language used in his postgame interviews.
Now his task is to use the positives that came out of the loss to play Utah, which he called "a great challenge."
"We are going to have to play extremely well," he said. "It is a great place to play, it's loud. It's going to be just as loud or louder than Kentucky."
While Kragthorpe has kept the focus more on his opponent than returning home, so has Whittingham. He said he only vaguely knew Kragthorpe from his BYU days. He is obviously more familiar with his coaching, though, recalling how Tulsa threw 23 screens against the Utes in the Armed Forces Bowl.
"His background is offense," Whittingham said. "He is a very intelligent coach with very sound schemes."
» Alma mater: West Texas State, 1988
» Father, Dave, coached at BYU
As Head Coach
» 2003-06, Tulsa, 29-22
» 2007-present, Louisville, 12-14
Columnist Kurt Kragthorpe says family ties can test sports reporters' objectivity. One Tribune reporter, for example, has an uncle on the Colorado State sidelines. › D10