By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007
Steve Kragthorpe is not threatening cruel and unusual punishment when he walks around Louisville's football complex carrying a baseball bat. Instead, the first-year coach is communicating a not-so-subtle message to players: A bat symbolizes "Better After Today," a pledge to improve during each practice.
The ability to connect emotionally with players, sometimes by creative means, will serve Kragthorpe well as he attempts a seamless transition into a program already near the pinnacle of the college football world. Kragthorpe's task: Turn a successful team into a perfect one.
Like former coach Bobby Petrino, who left for the Atlanta Falcons, Kragthorpe, 42, was born in Montana and is the son of a coach. Unlike Petrino, who displayed a strict business-like demeanor, Kragthorpe is personable, a characteristic his players embrace.
"He is a real players' coach," Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm said. "He really tries to know everything about you."
Tulsa, which Kragthorpe resurrected from gridiron ashes in 2003, had lost 21 games in two seasons before he arrived as head coach.
Louisville, on the other hand, has lost five games over the past three seasons combined, including last season's lone blemish, a 28-25 loss at Rutgers.
In that sense, Kragthorpe's current job is not to rebuild, but to polish.
In light of that, Kragthorpe and his staff made an important decision in their first meeting with players to accentuate success under Petrino. Kragthorpe inherited an offense that in recent years has ranked among the nation's highest-scoring units and Brohm, a quarterback poised to be among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. The staff wanted players to know it respected what had been accomplished, although there is room for improvement.
"The wheel was not broken," said Charlie Stubbs, Louisville's offensive coordinator, adding that "you can't fool them [players]. They know if you know what you're talking about."
Kragthorpe developed his ability to relate to players in part by spending most of his formative childhood years scampering around practices at Brigham Young.
Kragthorpe's father, Dave, coached the offensive line, which allowed the younger Kragthorpe to interact with former BYU players Jim McMahon, Andy Reid and Brian Billick.
Players squeezed Kragthorpe in lockers, taped him to practice dummies and tossed him in whirlpools. He loved the camaraderie and recently said that his sons will dart around Louisville's facilities in a similar manner.
Former longtime BYU coach LaVell Edwards insists Kragthorpe learned his relationship skills from his father, but Kragthorpe also counts Edwards among a handful of influential mentors. Kragthorpe has modeled aspects of his philosophy after Edwards, who often resisted watching extra hours of film so he could meet individually with players.
"It is very similar to the way I approach" dealing with players, Kragthorpe said. "I am curious about these guys as people."
Kragthorpe's entry into the coaching ranks is unorthodox. After earning his MBA from Oregon State in his mid-20s, Kragthorpe decided to try coaching for five years, knowing his degree provided a security blanket. In 1990, Kragthorpe was named quarterbacks coach at Northern Arizona, where he cultivated a relationship with the school's athletic director, Tom Jurich, the current Louisville athletic director who hired Kragthorpe less than 48 hours after Petrino departed.
Between Northern Arizona and Louisville, Kragthorpe worked as an assistant in various capacities at North Texas, Boston College, Texas A&M and with the NFL's Buffalo Bills. He then spent four seasons as Tulsa's head coach, accumulating a 29-22 record.
"He has had a nice experience in the sense that he seems to have made the right moves," Edwards said. "Seemed like at every step it has been a positive step. Many times when you move around like that you hit a brick wall and it doesn't work out and it was the wrong decision. But he has a way about him."
The return of a potential prototypical NFL quarterback in Brohm and a heralded set of wide receivers has Louisville players believing the offense can be even more explosive than last season. They are buying into Kragthorpe's fundamental-focused mottos, such as the one in the weight room that reads: "Iron Sharpens Iron," a reference to refining one another's skills.
"I don't think there's any question we want to play in the national championship game this year," Kragthorpe said. "People may say that's a bold statement. Well, if we don't have that type of thought process, we really don't need to be out there practicing right now."