Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich needed less than 48 hours to hire Steve Kragthorpe nearly three years ago, confident the coach who turned around the moribund program at Tulsa could keep the surging Cardinals atop the Big East.
The honeymoon lasted until the fourth quarter of Kragthorpe's first game.
Three seasons, zero bowl games, 21 losses and thousands of empty seats at Cardinal Stadium later, Jurich knew it was time to move on.
"It just didn't seem like the right fit from Day One," Jurich said Saturday, shortly after firing Kragthorpe following a 4-8 season, the program's worst in over a decade.
Kragthorpe went 15-21 in three seasons after replacing the massively successful Bobby Petrino in January 2007. He had two years remaining on a contract that paid him about $1.1 annually, and Jurich said Kragthorpe will receive a $2.2 million buyout.
It's an expensive parting gift, but one Jurich felt necessary after watching the Cardinals slip from national title contenders to Big East also-rans. The Cardinals went 5-16 in conference play under Kragthorpe and perhaps even worse, failed to beat rival Kentucky in three attempts.
"I was hoping we'd get over the hump this year," Jurich said. "I thought we could get through the year and really build some momentum and obviously that didn't happen."
Kragthorpe declined comment on Saturday but is expected to speak publicly on Monday.
The search for his replacement will begin immediately. The list of candidates could include Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer.
"I want to get a great leader of men and somebody that will take us to the heights we want to be at," Jurich said.
Finding someone who can sell tickets wouldn't hurt either.
A crowd of 23,422 turned out for a 34-14 loss to Rutgers on Friday. Several fans brought homemade signs voicing their displeasure with the direction of the program while others wore paper bags over their heads.
Even worse was the number of fans who didn't show up at all.
Louisville averaged just over 32,000 at the 42,000-seat stadium, down from more than 41,000 during Petrino's last season. With Cardinal Stadium expanding to 55,000 seats in time for the 2010 opener against Kentucky, Kragthorpe's inability to connect with the Louisville fan base became painfully obvious.
"For everything he did in his life, he got hammered for," Jurich said. "I don't think there was anything right he could do."
Despite the outside pressure, Kragthorpe remained popular with his players. Nearly two dozen left or were asked to leave as part of a locker room purge during his first 18 months on the job, which led to better unity on the sidelines, if not between the lines.
"Even though we didn't have the wins that we wanted, Coach K was a great coach," said junior wide receiver Doug Beaumont. "He showed us more than just the life of football. He showed us the life outside of football (and) our character off the field."
But he was unable to find any sustained success on it.
His stay began with a top-10 ranking and whispers of a national title shot after Kragthorpe helped persuade star quarterback Brian Brohm to return for his senior season.
By the fourth quarter of his first game against Murray State, fans were already restless. They booed when the Cardinals decided to settle for a field goal while up 70-10 rather than tack on another meaningless touchdown.
Louisville quickly tumbled from the rankings following a last-second loss to Kentucky in his third game on the job and finished 6-6 that season. The Cardinals started 5-2 last year before losing their last five games, including a nationally televised 63-14 loss to Rutgers.
Kragthorpe came forward the next day and pledged to turn the program around while acknowledging his window of opportunity was closing.
On Saturday, following the worst season since the Cardinals went 1-10 in 1997, the window shut for good. A program that was blossoming three years ago after going 12-1 and winning the Orange Bowl now is in full rebuilding mode.
And unlike Kragthorpe's speedy hire, which came 44 hours after Petrino bolted for the NFL, Jurich is in no rush to hire his replacement.
"I'm not going to intrude on anybody that's playing right now," he said.
Besides, it may take him awhile to find the money. Paying Kragthorpe for his troubles will "strap" the athletic department, according to Jurich. That doesn't mean he plans on settling.
"I've got to find a way to go out and get a great one," Jurich said.
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University of Louisville Athletics
By AP Sports Writer Will Graves
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