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Scott Satterfield is Making Football Fun Again

By Jim Johnson
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Usually, a rebuild, within the context of football, is in regards to replacing talent or developing inexperienced athletes. Scott Satterfield is rebuilding people.

"Coach Petrino recruited me out of high school, and me and Coach Satt are probably closer already, even though it’s only been about six months."
~Dorian Etheridge

Prior to 2018, Louisville had gone bowling eight years in a row, and won at least nine games four of the last six years. They were a year removed from trotting out a Heisman Trophy winner -- the best player in program history, and arguably the best in college football history.

With the sort of momentum that’s almost harder not to capitalize on, this was a team poised to cement itself as a perennial ACC power for years to come. Two wins, ten losses, and sixteen transfers later, the opposite is true.

It was a sad state of affairs when Scott Satterfield was hired. Not long after winning the inaugural Sun Belt Championship Game, firmly placing the transition he oversaw from the FCS to the FBS, at App State, among the most impressive of all-time -- right alongside that of Marshall and Boise State’s, respectively -- the new Cardinal-in-charge was announced.

After leading what was among the best G5 teams in the nation in 2018, he entered the new year as the head coach of what had been perhaps the worst P5 team.

The first thing on his agenda wasn’t to sell himself to the fans. It wasn’t to upgrade the facilities. It wasn’t to focus on the quarterback battle, or the workout regimen, or the meal plan. It was to reinvigorate a team that had been through heckuva a lot. To turn a collection of beleaguered players into a family. To install a new set of leaders that shared those goals and values. To make football fun.

“It was sad, really,” Satterfield began. “We just said, ‘you know, guys, we’ve got a clean slate. Whatever happened in the past, forget about it. Everything moving forward is what we’re judging you on -- how hard you come in here and work.’ That’s what we’re looking at. It doesn’t matter about talent. I want to have a great attitude and work ethic. So, ‘Attitude and Effort’ we’ve got in every meeting room in our building. We just kind of loved on them and put our arms around them… Some guys left, but the ones that are here have done everything we’ve asked and worked really hard on a daily basis. That’s how you build confidence: working hard together.”

Usually, a rebuild, within the context of football, is in regards to replacing talent or developing inexperienced athletes. Scott Satterfield is rebuilding people. The previous regime left some guys in bad shape. Less physical than mental, psychological was Satterfield’s task.

“He invited us to his house. In the four years that I’ve been here, I had never been to a coach’s house before,” senior wide receiver Seth Dawkins relayed. “Coach Satt invited us a few times, just within the first couple of months after he was hired. He opened his home to us, his family to us. That meant a lot. He may not realize that, but it means a lot, especially to us older players. We just realized that we never had that sort of compassion from a coach before.”

“Yeah, that hadn’t happened since I’ve been in college,” linebacker Dorian Etheridge confirmed. “I’ve been over there are few times already. People don’t really think that stuff like that matters, but players, we all take notice of that.”

Etheridge continued, “We’ve had a lot of team events. Usually when you have a new staff coming in, it’s going to be like, ‘Oh, God, a whole bunch of work, we’ve got to get better, we’ve got to get better, we’ve got to get better,’ but they made sure that we had fun.”

It’s the little things. Even Satterfield, himself, was taken aback by how much such a seemingly small gesture meant.

“That is surprising, because that’s all I’ve ever been a part of,” Satterfield stated. “I’ve always had players over to my house. Most of the coaches I’ve coached with have done the same thing with their position group. They’re an extension of our family. I’m around those guys more than I’m around my kids. So, obviously, I want to bring them to my house, get them around my family. That’s part of it. That’s part of this family atmosphere that we’re creating. I think they like that. They like being a part of that.”

It doesn’t stop with the players, either. A family has to be a family from the top down.

“We play noon hoops. Our staff went on a retreat to the lake. I took 30 of them down to the lake. When you do things like that, outside of football, when it’s crunch time in a football game, everybody’s got everybody’s back. We know nobody’s backstabbing anybody else. We’re all in this thing together. So when it’s fourth down, we decide to go for it, and we don’t get it, the defense doesn’t get mad. They just go stop them. That’s just how it works,” he explained. “We’ve always done that, and it’s been a big part of why our teams have had success.

“When I first got the job, the players had never been upstairs to the coaches’ offices. That blows my mind. So, the fact that we’re having them over to our house and hanging out in our offices, that means a lot. We’re with these guys everyday for a long period of time. If we want them to trust us, we’ve got to trust them. You do that by having relationships. That’s what it’s all about.”

And he made sure to bring in coordinators with whom he knew he could build the program that he sought to build.

To lead the offense, Dwayne Ledford, lured away from NC State where he developed some the ACC’s best offensive linemen in recent memory, including the 2018 Rimington Trophy winner, Garrett Bradbury.

Satterfield recalled, “Coach Led was at App for four years with me when I first got back as the Head Coach. Then he moved on, and he actually turned down about five jobs before he took the one in Raleigh. He did a great job there. He was one of the guys I reached out to early on and said, ‘Hey, listen. I’d love for you to come on and be my O-Line coach. He had some other opportunities,  but I’m glad he came on. We had a great working relationship and he does a phenomenal job with offensive linemen. He knows exactly want we want to do. What we want to do offensively is exactly what he wants to do and it meshes very well.”

On the other side of the ball, he brought Bryan Brown with him from Boone. A wizard with defensive backs, the Mountaineers finished in the national top 15 in interceptions each of the last four years.

“Coach Brown is out there just like we are. His presence is felt on every play, from the sideline. He’ll run down the field with us if it’s a deep ball. He’ll come chase you down if he sees you walking. That’s just the mentality he takes,” grinned Etheridge. “And Coach Jones, our linebackers coach, he’s a great mind. He’s been around football longer than I’ve been alive, so he has so much wisdom, and just teaches us everyday.”

Still, it all starts with Satterfield’s example. Stylistically different from Petrino in more ways than one, the players have already responded to his changes.

“Coach Satterfield is more laid back,” said Dawkins. “He doesn’t yell as much as Coach P did. He demands greatness, but he’s not going to yell it out of you. You’re either motivated or you’re not, but we’re all motivated.

“There’s more of an even-keeled, chill vibe throughout the program. Not in a bad way, either. We’re still working hard. Everyone just feels more comfortable.”

Etheridge added, “He’s a lot more approachable -- I think that would be the appropriate word for it. Coach Petrino recruited me out of high school, and me and Coach Satt are probably closer already, even though it’s only been about six months.

“We’re all bought in. Some of the guys were kind of on the edge about it, but the other players really helped them come in. Once that happened, a lot of the… I wouldn’t say hostility, but feelings toward each other changed. Once we all knew we wanted the same common goal, it made everything so much easier.”

There’s not one right away to motivate people, no singular best practice to succeed as a coach. Satterfield is simply doing what comes naturally to him.

“You’ve got to be who you are, whatever that is,” Satterfield concluded. “Coach Saban is probably more in your face and he’s won a lot of games. Coach Swinney is a great guy to play for and he’s won a lot of games. Different styles, right? You just have to be who you are. Don’t try to be fake, and that’s how you have success.”

Perhaps that authenticity, more so than anything else, is what the people within the program are responding to.

“Everyone is so passionate,” Etheridge beamed. “Down to the ball boys, everybody is making sure that they’re on top of their stuff. They just put us in a position to do great things.”

There’s a lot of work to be done before Louisville can once more compete with the Clemson’s of the world. The magic of Lamar Jackson had masked how bad things had truly gotten under the prior staff. When he left, there was nowhere to hide.

It sounds cheesy, but the Louisville Cardinals won’t measure the success of their 2019 season in wins and losses. For now, it’s about rebuilding what once felt like irreparable damage. It’s about making a team a family.

All Satterfield has done his entire career is win. That’ll come with time.

For now, it’s about making football fun, like it’s supposed to be.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP