INTERVIEW: Mike Rutherford talks about his new book, the upcoming Louisville Football season, and yes, the 2013 banner

You already know Mike Rutherford as being the guy that runs Card Chronicle, which is far and away the quintessential hub for all things related to the University of Louisville’s sports programs (namely Basketball, Football & Baseball). You also know him as the former co-host of the popular (but now defunct) Ramsey and Rutherford Show on ESPN Louisville. Through these two avenues over the last decade, he has made quite a name for himself among this city’s sports journalism community and Louisville fanatics alike as a passionate enthusiast of Louisville athletics and an awesome writer.

What you might not know is that this guy has somehow also made time to write a book. Titled 100 Things Louisville Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, you sort of get the idea of what this thing is all about. Basically, there are 100 chapters each containing a story about a person or an event or an activity that has defined Louisville sports. In case you were looking for a way to expand your Cards fandom, I’d say this would be a great place to start. The book is scheduled to hit the streets on October 15; preorder it at any of the following links: Amazon (in four different forms), Barnes & NobleGoogle or Carmichael’s

To get a better handle on what the book is all about, and to get his thoughts on the upcoming Louisville football season, I reached out for an interview. Thankfully, he obliged.

Never Nervous: Why write a book? How’d this thing come together?

Mike Rutherford: It was something I always thought I would do at some point, but I didn’t want to go through the headache (and the likely financial loss) of self-publishing, so I’d been holding off hoping that a project would come along. Triumph Publishing came to me with the proposal of 100 Things Louisville Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die last fall, and it was a no-brainer to tackle the project, even though the timing (college football just starting and basketball preview season being in full swing) wasn’t ideal. Thankfully, they were extremely patient with me throughout the winter.

NN: Was it tough coming up with 100 separate ideas to write about, or would you say it was harder to narrow it down?

MR: Definitely tougher to come up with 100 things.

When you first start brainstorming you’re thinking about all the big stories in the history of Louisville sports and then a handful of small, funny stories and you’re like “no problem.” Then once you actually start putting them on paper you get to No. 65 and you’re like “ohhhhh fuck I didn’t think this all the way through.”

The toughest part for me was that even the small, 600-800 word chapters had to be researched so thoroughly. You couldn’t just steamroll through them like you can with short website posts or even sections of longer features. You might know that Louisville won the NIT in 1956 and you might know who their best player was and who they beat in the championship game, but that doesn’t speed up the writing process at all for that chapter. You still have to go back and look up all the minor details in order to tell a full and accurate story of that title run.

It was exhausting, and it was exhausting at a time where I had very little time and energy to give. I can’t believe I’m still married.

NN: Were there any topics that you wanted to write about, but couldn’t because it was too racy or personal?

MR: Not really. There were a couple of stories that interviewees brought up sort of off the cuff that I wanted to dive deeper into, but when they resisted I backed off. There’s definitely some inside stuff in the book that I think people haven’t been privy to anywhere else. I got to use the F word a few times too, which is cool.

“There’s definitely some inside stuff in the book that I think people haven’t been privy to anywhere else. I got to use the ‘F’ word a few times too, which is cool.”

NN: Now that you’ve got a popular website, hosted a popular radio show and now have a book on the way, can we just call you the Howard Stern of Louisville?

MR: I would kill to have like 20 percent of Howard’s hair.

NN: What are you gonna do with all that book money? A jet ski? A Porsche?

MR: It should cover at least two grocery trips to Kroger, which is big for me. Big for the whole family, really.

NN: How do you see Louisville’s upcoming football season playing out? Care to give us a best case/worst case scenario?

MR: Louisville’s just the 15th college football team ever to field a reigning Heisman Trophy winner, and I still feel like I don’t have any sort of handle on what to expect from this squad. If the offensive line isn’t better than what we saw in the last month of 2016, then it won’t matter how good Jackson is. Toss in a new defensive coordinator and a bunch of fresh faces on both sides of the ball, and I think anyone who says they have a great feel for what this team is or isn’t capable of at this moment is kidding themselves.

The good news is that the schedule is very, very manageable. Jeff Brohm doesn’t have the weapons at Purdue to compete right out of the gate, North Carolina (Louisville’s rotating Coastal Division opponent for this year) lost a ton including their star quarterback, and you get Clemson at home in the third week of the season. Unless something goes really, really wrong, there’s no excuse for the Cards to win fewer than nine games.

“Unless something goes really, really wrong, there’s no excuse for the Cards to win fewer than nine games.”

NN: Is there one game on the schedule in particular that you’ve got circled?

MR: I think it has to be Clemson, even with Florida State having so much preseason hype. It’s the first home game of the season, it’s the reigning national champions, and it’s a team that you’ve really been one play away from beating in each of the last three seasons. That should be a beautiful morning, afternoon and evening at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

NN: Louisville’s offensive line was dogged pretty hard at the end of last season. Give us a reason to hope things won’t be so bad this year.

MR: Well there will be three new starters, and it’s more likely than not that two of them will be in their first year with the program. The other big thing is that Mike Summers is back to coach the offensive line, a position he held during the first Petrino regime from 2003-06. If you talk to the linemen who played for him back then, they are all effusive in their praise of his knowledge and his ability as a teacher. So that’s exciting.

NN: Does the lack of preseason hype for Lamar Jackson surprise you? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Heisman winning QB go into a season with almost no expectation to win the trophy again.

MR: Here’s the thing: If Lamar Jackson had spent his summer being photographed partying or driving a fancy car or sitting front row at the NBA Finals, he would have been a daily talking point on all of ESPN’s 3,000 “let’s scream at each other” shows. People would be debating his skills, they’d be debating his merits as an NFL quarterback, and they’d be talking more about Louisville in general.

Instead, Lamar spent his offseason doing everything right. He spent some time at home and posted pictures of himself playing laser tag with his mom and friends. He went to the Manning Passing Academy and didn’t get sent home early for getting drunk like Johnny Manziel did the year after his Heisman triumph. He got bigger, he got faster, and he stayed out the spotlight. It’s what the country says it wants to see from its highest-profile athletes (especially the ones in college), but it’s also something the country is reluctant to praise or even discuss.

The first time Lamar does those things that only he can do next month, the rest of the world will wonder why they’d spent the previous six months forgetting about him.

“He (Lamar Jackson) got bigger, he got faster, and he stayed out the spotlight. It’s what the country says it wants to see … but it’s also something the country is reluctant to praise or even discuss.”

NN: Shifting to basketball, how has Rick Pitino continued to recruit so well despite the black cloud hanging over the program the last few years? It seems as if he’s recruiting better than he ever has at Louisville.

MR: Yeah, while Lamar Jackson’s offseason is the most overlooked U of L football story, the fact that Louisville is recruiting better than they ever have before in the Pitino era despite all the shit still swirling around the program is being equally ignored on the basketball side.

I think you have to look at the assistants when you’re talking about why this is happening. Kenny Johnson came to Louisville with a reputation as an elite recruiter, but new assistant Jordan Fair has really stepped up and made an enormous difference for the program. He’s the guy who was most instrumental in bringing in Anfernee Simons, who’s going to wind up being a top 10 player and a McDonald’s All-American in this 2018 class.

The other thing to remember is that while we’re all caught up in the banner and past wins being taken away and all that, none of those things affect these kids at all. If you’re Anfernee Simons you’re not worried about whether or not the 2013 national championship is going to be listed on the official Louisville Basketball Wikipedia page, you’re worried about competing for a title in 2018-19 and putting yourself in the best position possible to play the game professionally at some point after that. Teenage basketball phenoms in general aren’t paying attention to the same things we are. You’d think we’d all have figured that out by now.

NN: Is there any legitimate shot at keeping that 2013 banner in the rafters, or should we just expect the worst?

MR: I think there definitely is, whether it’s through the appeal or taking things to court and doing what Penn State did which is say “hey, you can’t just make up a punishment for a transgression that isn’t anywhere in your bylaws, there has to be some precedent here.” The issue is whether or not U of L wants to go that route and have this black cloud looming over them for another couple of years (I think they will if it comes down to it).

Having said that, expecting the worst is still probably the best mindset to have at this point. Not expecting the worst has made these past couple of years even more painful. Maybe predicting that the NCAA will both deny U of L’s appeal and give the program the death penalty will make only the first thing happening more easy to stomach. Maybe.