LOUISVILLE, Ky. – To appreciate the giddy place where the Louisville Cardinals are today as the newest members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, you must understand where they were 15 years ago.
When Tom Jurich came to town as the new athletic director in October 1997, he inherited a department that was collapsing at an alarming rate.
The basketball program was on NCAA probation and under sanctions. The glory days of the 1980s, when the Cardinals won two national championships, were fading quickly as Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum aged.
The football program was playing its games in a minor-league baseball stadium, although a new football stadium was scheduled to open the following season. But before getting into that new facility, Jurich had to watch Louisville finish a 1-10 train wreck of a season – then he had to fire its young African-American coach.
The non-revenue sports were uniformly underfunded, and most of them were unsuccessful. Their facilities were embarrassing. The school was well behind in meeting gender-equity requirements.
Academics? Louisville was the subject of a "60 Minutes" piece earlier in the decade on its abysmal basketball graduation rate.
Things were so bad that even Louisville's mid-major brethren were appalled. Conference USA schools were actively seeking to boot the Cardinals from the league, citing all the above problems plus the difficulty in getting Louisville to work cooperatively with the rest of the membership. It took an intervention from C-USA commissioner Mike Slive to stop the eviction.
So this bright and sunny Wednesday, as an urban school of modest academic credentials celebrated its inclusion in the prestigious ACC, feels like a sporting miracle here. Louisville was never a privileged university – its identity was formed as a gritty commuter school without an idyllic campus. It has lacked state flagship status and widespread affection or support outside the city limits. Rural kids don't grow up dreaming of going there and coal barons don't open their wallets for the school. Everything Louisville has gotten, it had to work for.
That's why this sporting miracle was more a matter of unstinting effort and unwavering vision than a karmic kiss. This has been a 15-year battle that Tom Jurich finally won.
The battle appeared to be won in 2004. That's when Louisville led a pack of five schools breaking away from C-USA for the Big East to replace Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College.
That was the original day of realignment celebration. After years of toiling outside the Bowl Championship Series big boys club, Louisville had gotten its invitation.
By that point, Jurich had already worked a startling makeover. And the most important part of that was upgrading the school's coaches – particularly on the football side, where Jurich excels.
After firing Ron Cooper, he hired John L. Smith and then Bobby Petrino in football, resulting in nine straight bowl bids. The new stadium helped recruiting, and so did the Cardinals' willingness to play whenever ESPN asked them to – Louisville football became as synonymous with weeknight viewing as "Law & Order."
In 2001, Jurich skillfully forced out Crum. It wasn't easy: The local legend still had vast support, didn't want to go and didn't want to make it easy on Jurich. A losing record helped give Jurich the leverage he needed, but the fan base wanted a big name to replace a departing big name.
That's when Jurich pulled off the stunning coup of landing recovering NBA coach Rick Pitino, four years after Pitino rebuilt archrival Kentucky down the road. The only thing more surprising than Jurich landing Pitino has been Jurich keeping Pitino – 11 years later, the formerly peripatetic coach is still at Louisville.
The athletic director had also tapped into booster Owsley Brown Frazier, a liquor magnate and champion of non-revenue sports. His funding of Owsley B. Frazier Cardinal Park – a row of modern facilities that basically serves as the school's front porch to visitors – dramatically changed Louisville's fortunes.
So starting in 2005, when the Cardinals entered the Big East, a comfortable course appeared to be set for the next 50 years. School president James Ramsey had given Jurich the green light to aggressively upgrade athletics, and he did the job.
Instead, that stability lasted for five.
By 2010, the tectonic plates of college sports were shifting again. With everyone looking to grab football inventory and hike television revenue, the Big East suddenly looked very vulnerable – and the membership was deeply divided over how to respond.
Jurich championed Big East expansion to solidify football, knowing that basketball would be fine. But while the conference dithered, other leagues acted. And eventually, the ACC picked off Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
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The Big East's instability coincided with the one bad hire Jurich has made: Steve Kragthorpe to replace Petrino as the Louisville football coach. Given the importance of football in every realignment decision, the timing was nearly catastrophic.
Louisville's three-year slump without a bowl bid took away one of its primary attributes during the 2005 realignment. Not even the resurgent basketball program, which was moving into a 22,000-seat, $238-million downtown arena, could overcome the loss in football stature.
Suddenly, with the Big East splintering and the Big 12 needing a school to get back to 10 after the departures of Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M, West Virginia improbably outflanked the Cardinals last year for membership in that conference. TCU also left the Big East for the Big 12 before it had even played a game.
Louisville kept working back channels – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made some calls, and a Jurich trip to Texas appeared to win over Longhorns athletic director DeLoss Dodds – but ultimately couldn't convince the Big 12 why it needed to add an 11th school.
After the euphoria of getting to the Big East, it now looked like a dead-end destination. Even after Jurich corrected the Kragthorpe error by hiring Charlie Strong and watching him revive the football program – which led to a stadium expansion from 42,000 to 55,000 – security was slipping away from the Cardinals. Would BCS status slip away? Would Strong want to stay? Would recruits still want to come?
That feeling only got worse in recent weeks, when Rutgers bolted for the Big Ten. It was joined by Maryland, which opened the door to the ACC.
For two years, since the ACC took Pitt and Syracuse, the widely held assumption was that Connecticut was next in line to join that league. UConn had the stronger academic profile, had been to the Fiesta Bowl following the 2010 season, won the 2011 men's basketball title and had the nation's dominant women's basketball program.
But then it was UConn's turn to slip in football, regressing after Randy Edsall left for Maryland. And then Jim Calhoun's tenure at UConn ended ingloriously, with NCAA sanctions for rules violations and academic underachievement. The future of a program built on a single man is in doubt.
Mostly, though, Louisville's return to football prominence – and massive financial commitment to it – won the day. Jurich worked his football-first allies in the league, advertising the upgraded stadium and a team that should start 2013 in the national top 15, at least. The fact that he made Louisville embrace football has turned out to be instrumental.
Basketball sold itself – the addition of future Hall of Famer Pitino to match wits with current HOFers Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams was enticing. The broad-based success (a women's Final Four in 2009, a College World Series visit in 2007) didn't hurt.
Athletically, Louisville was a tangible upgrade from Maryland. The sticking point was academics, with the school 160th in the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings.
Ultimately, the ACC dropped academic pretense and made an athletic decision. Louisville was the best choice.
That's hard to believe, given the department Tom Jurich took over 15 years ago. From C-USA outcast to the Big East to the ACC, he dragged a once-troubled program to where it never could have dreamed of being.
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