ATLANTA – Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich stood in the Georgia Dome Friday afternoon, watching his Final Four Cardinals go through a light, laughter-filled open practice.
Sunday, he will be in New Orleans to watch his other Final Four Cardinals – the women's basketball team – play California. He will fly between sites as long as the Cardinals are playing.
When basketball season ends, Jurich will go home to watch his Sugar Bowl champion football team and its Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback finish spring drills in preparation of starting the 2013 season ranked in the top 10. He will check in on a baseball team ranked anywhere from 9th to 14th, depending on the poll. The 11th-ranked softball team will merit watching, too. Last week, Louisville had a men's swimmer win an NCAA individual championship in Indianapolis – the second straight year a Cardinal swimmer has done so.
The brag sheet goes on from there. No wonder this man is smiling.
"Obviously, it's a great year," Jurich said. "There's no way anybody could've expected all this."
The least expected accomplishment of all will become official in 2014. That's when Louisville joins the Atlantic Coast Conference.
If you dial back 17 months, that seemed inconceivable.
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In late October 2011, Louisville officials were stunned by the latest conference realignment news: West Virginia was joining the Big 12.
As the Big East disintegrated, the Cardinals had been angling for a spot in the Big 12 and privately believed they had it locked up. Then West Virginia outflanked Louisville late in the process and landed the only spot the league was willing to offer.
At the time, this was disastrous news in Louisville.
Today, it's turned out to be a great miss for the Cardinals.
And the Big 12 must have massive buyer's remorse.
In the 17 months since that fateful Big 12 decision, Louisville has gone from the realignment remainder bin to the crown jewel of the ACC's three all-sports, Big East add-ons. Syracuse and Pittsburgh are joining this year, but Louisville is positioned to make the biggest splash when it arrives in 2014.
"We're so thankful to the Atlantic Coast Conference," Jurich said. "If we could have gone to any conference, given the membership, that's where we wanted to be. I just didn't think it was realistic."
The academic barriers appeared to be too tall for a public, urban university still trying to improve its overall profile and rid itself of a commuter-school reputation and vibe. That's why the Big 12 seemed like the only life raft for Louisville as the Big East steadily sank.
"We really tried hard to get into the Big 12," Jurich said.
Jurich and president James Ramsey lobbied their peers within the league, particularly working on the kingpins at Texas and Oklahoma. Basketball coach Rick Pitino – who in his gut had no interest in coaching in Lubbock, Ames and other Big 12 locales – reached out to Bill Self at Kansas, seeking support. U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, a Louisville alum and fan, put in a word with former Senate colleague David Boren, now president at Oklahoma.
And then West Virginia came almost out of nowhere to swipe the Big 12's 10th spot away from the Cardinals.
The primary selling point – as it is in all realignment issues – was football. The Mountaineers program had stayed on a consistently successful level from Rich Rodriguez to Bill Stewart to Dana Holgerson, while Louisville's had dipped in the transition from Bobby Petrino to Steve Kragthorpe. Charlie Strong was in the process of bringing the program back, but the Cardinals had slipped enough that nothing was guaranteed.
While going 10-3 and winning the Orange Bowl in 2011, West Virginia put 56,532 fans in the stands for home games. While going 7-6 and losing the Belk Bowl in 2011, Louisville put 48,538 fans in the stands for home games.
That was basically the winning margin for the Mountaineers with the Big 12.
Louisville desperately hoped the Big 12 would consider adding it in addition to West Virginia, as the league's 11th member. Jurich visited Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds in Austin in hopes of winning him over. But the league decided 10 was enough and stood pat.
Since that disappointment, everything has broken Louisville's way. Being snubbed by the Big 12 has been a godsend.
When word broke in mid-November that Rutgers and Maryland were moving to the Big Ten, Louisville had its opening in the ACC. Jurich reached out to some of the more football-friendly athletic directors in the league, most notably Randy Spetman at Florida State, for lobbying support. Pitino talked to some of the prominent ACC basketball coaches. Ramsey, the school president, tapped into connections he had from his days as an economics professor at North Carolina.
When the lobbying effort was done, Louisville got the ACC to swallow hard on the academic profile and take it on athletics. The league didn't try to spin that reality.
"The one thing I will say that's different today than it was 10-15 years ago, you'd get some B.S. answer from the administrations," Pitino said. "They are very transparent in saying it's about the money. … So at least the transparency is there."
This time, the Cardinals were the surprise candidate outflanking a fellow Big East school – namely Connecticut. This time, the Cardinals got the life raft off the sinking ship.
And as it turned out, the ACC was a far better destination in terms of geography, basketball prestige and academic neighborhood. It was the greatest consolation prize in Louisville athletic history.
Meanwhile, West Virginia's first year in the Big 12 has been bumpy. The Mountaineers went 7-6 after a 5-0 start in football. The basketball team was awful, going 13-19 overall and 0-15 against the top 50 teams in the Sagarin Ratings. Women's basketball was a non-factor at 17-14.
Along the way, the school discovered that, gee, being more than 800 miles from the rest of the league is hard. In February, West Virginia requested some scheduling breaks in football and men's basketball to deal with the travel demands. Everyone saw that coming when the move was first being pondered. No one paused long enough to reconsider.
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While West Virginia was struggling, Louisville was soaring.
Strong's third Louisville football team had its breakthrough year, winning the Big East and then shocking Florida in a Sugar Bowl rout. Along the way, Strong turned down a big offer from Tennessee for a bigger raise from Jurich, establishing the Cardinals on a different level in the coaching strata.
Pitino's 12th Louisville team began the season ranked No. 2, has won more than 30 games and took the overall No. 1 seed into this tournament. The Cardinals are the team to beat this weekend in the Georgia Dome – and the coach reportedly found out Thursday he's been voted into the Hall of Fame.
Women's coach Jeff Walz has Louisville in the Final Four for the second time in the past five seasons. He's turned down other jobs to stay with the Cardinals.
So has baseball coach Dan McDonnell, who took Louisville to the 2007 College World Series.
"The ACC has solidified this thing," Jurich said. "We've turned our coaching jobs into destination jobs. There's nothing stepping-stone about it anymore."
Everything may turn out fine for West Virginia and the Big 12 – one season is obviously a very small sample size. But during what has turned out to be the best athletic year in Louisville history, early returns suggest the Big 12 chose unwisely.
And after the initial panic and disappointment, the ACC-bound Cardinals are very thankful it did.
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