"A MIRROR IMAGE"
HELMET NEWS ARTICLE FORJANUARY 2006
LOUISVILLE CARDINALS, A MIRROR IMAGE
By Dr. Ken
Cincinnati is located in the southwestern corner of Ohio near the Indiana border and right on the Ohio River that forms the border with northern Kentucky. The cities of northern Kentucky like Covington, Newport, and Highland Heights are considered by many to be suburbs of Cincinnati even though they reside in another state. Lexington, Kentucky is only seventy-four miles and Louisville eighty-seen miles from the Queen City Of Ohio. This would make for a spirited football rivalry with these schools but Kentucky as an SEC school rarely if ever plays Cincinnati and thus any potential athletic rivalry between those two schools is reserved for the basketball court. Louisville however, has always been a UC football rival, in part due to location and in part due to being evenly matched with the Bearcats through most decades. Louisville through the 1990s has been a very good football program. They successfully recruit Florida due to the tradition started by former University Of Miami Head Coach Howard Schnellenberger who returned to his hometown to revive a sagging U of L program in the mid-1980’s. The winning ways established by Schnellenberger, considered to be one of the greatest high school players to come out of the city of Louisville and a Bear Bryant disciple, were continued by current Michigan State coach John L. Smith and now by former Auburn assistant Bobby Petrino. Cincinnati’s fortunes haven’t been as positive as they slug through another “middle-of-the-road” season under Mark Dantonio, yet another in a long succession of head football coaches. Rick Minter’s ten years on the job must have set a modern UC coaching longevity record and it has long been recognized as a stepping-stone to bigger and better jobs in college and at the professional level.
Both schools feature red and black as their colors and through the years, have had uniform designs that were similar. In the 1960’s, they recruited from the same region, from the same cities, and often head-to-head for the same players. Almost every Division I university program recruits nationally. The larger programs have national television exposure as do many of the mid-range D-I schools thanks to the Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and occasional Friday evening ESPN televised games of the conferences that normally would not be granted the same type of exposure on a football Saturday. Certainly through the early 2000’s, the exposure that both Cincinnati and Louisville received as Conference USA “games of the week” served to enhance and expand their base of recruiting. The lesser-known D-I schools often recruit heavily from the junior college ranks in order to remain competitive and this offers the most reasonable explanation as to why a former high school fullback from Brooklyn, N.Y. can be found living and playing in Pocatello, Idaho! In the 1960’s however, this was not the case. While what we can term middle-of-the-road “large college programs” such as Louisville and Cincinnati usually had two or three JC transfers on the roster, most players would have been recruited within a two hundred mile radius of campus. Cincinnati did the bulk of their recruiting from Ohio, with many from the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area, Western Pennsylvania, and Indiana. Because Head Coach Chuck Studley had previously been the head coach at the University Of Massachusetts, we had a few Bay State players on board but other than Milt Balkum from Newark, NJ (a JC transfer) and a player from Canada, the majority of the fellows were from the previously described radius around the campus. This was also typical. When current University Of Central Florida Head Coach George O’Leary was an assistant coach at Syracuse, they recruited a majority of the better Long Island players and did so successfully as Coach O’Leary was a Long Island native and former area high school coach. When Bernie Wyatt was an assistant at Iowa in the 1980’s, they had an awful lot of Long Island players there and when Wyatt joined the staff of Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, the Badgers then had quite a few Long Island athletes on their roster while the number at Iowa dwindled. As a former Amityville High School star, Wyatt had great relationships in his hometown area. This is reflective of a coach with a particular connection to the high schools of a specific area successfully recruiting that area for the staff he is working for. Other than that though, schools recruited their proximal region. At UC there was not one player from Florida, California, or Texas and I would state that there is probably not a Division One school in the Midwest today who does not have at least one athlete from one of those states. Louisville also recruited from the proximity around their campus. In 1966 for example, their All America quarterback candidate Benny Russell was one of only three players from Florida and almost predictably, all came to Louisville together from Florida having transferred in from Pensacola Junior College. All of their other players were from Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana with two from upstate New York.
Like Cincinnati, Louisville had excellent
players who were well schooled in the fundamentals coming out of high school.
There would usually be one or two outstanding players that an observer could say
with confidence, that “They could play almost anywhere in the country” but most
would be able to realistically play interchangeably at Cincinnati, Louisville,
Memphis State, and the Mid America Conference schools but not as regulars in the
Big Ten or SEC. In 1966 and ’67 Louisville had Ed Harmon who I’m sure, everyone
on their schedule feared. A fullback as a sophomore, the 6’4”, 225 pound Harmon
was, as the coaches stated, “too valuable to run behind Wayne Patrick” so he was
moved to linebacker where he was expected to take over for departed Doug Buffone
and did so admirably. Patrick was a big fullback himself, especially for the
era. A 6’1”, 230 pounder, he topped out at 254 pounds and had a solid if
undistinguished five-year career with the Bills. Buffone of course starred at
linebacker for the Bears from 1966 through ’79 and is considered to be one of
the Bear greats of that era. Harmon however, was a guy who could knock people
into next week. Tall and rangy, he gave Louisville one of the largest fullback
combinations in the Missouri Valley Conference considering that he and Patrick
were as big or bigger than most of their linemen but as the two-way player was
being phased out, Harmon was not going to languish on the bench in a back-up
role. Our guys talked about Harmon as “growling and yelling at his own guys and
then running them over” if that’s what it took to make a tackle. He truly was
one of the best in the Conference and easily among the hardest hitters. Drafted
in the third round by the Cowboys in 1968, he spent the season with the Oklahoma
City Plainsmen of the Continental Football League and with the Cincinnati
Bengals. Some of us who had watched him on the field thought he would have a
longer pro career but some of the hits he made were in fact very long lasting!
Russell of course was the Cardinals main man and an All Conference choice. He
was what was then known as a “Redshirt Draft Choice” being taken as a junior in
the first round by the Buffalo Bills but after appearing in only one game in
1968, he found himself among the passing leaders of the Atlantic Coast Football
League as the quarterback of the Hartford Knights.
The Louisville Cardinal uniforms were simple but elegant, a bit more understated than the UC uniforms. I recall the Cardinals wearing red jerseys with the standard stitched on white numerals and red helmets. When we played them through the mid-1960s, the all red helmets had an interlocking white UL on the sides for one or two of those seasons. When we faced them in 1968, they had replaced the UL logo with the player’s white numeral on the sides of the helmet. Coincidentally, UC had an interlocking UC on the sides of the helmet and when Homer Rice came in as head coach for the 1967 season, we went to an all red helmet, just like Louisville, adding a white center stripe for 1968. The entire uniform of each school was simple but nice and another similarity between the programs. With success in Conference USA, both schools have moved up to the Big East Conference, seemingly locked in tandem in many ways. Of course, Coach Dantonio is trying to move the Bearcat program forward while there is no argument that Louisville is now considered one of the top teams in the nation year-to-year, known best for great offensive firepower. During the mid-70’s, Louisville adorned their helmets with a Cardinal logo which they have maintained to this date and it is easily recognizable among collegiate symbols, one that has grown to reflect excellence on the football field. Yet, I miss the simpler and understated one color jerseys without all of the piping and side-striping that is so commonplace today and Louisville’s mid-1960’s uniforms were an excellent representation of those simple, beautiful uniforms.