After countless scandals, can Vince Tyra save Louisville?

Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra speaks to the media during a press conference. (AP)
Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra speaks to the media during a press conference. (AP)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Vince Tyra was a lot of things before he became the Louisville athletic director — he was a collegiate pitcher of some renown, a businessman in myriad roles, even an amateur sports writer.

On Sunday mornings during the college football season, Tyra would assume his alter ego, Pigskin Pete, and type out barb-laced comedic recaps of games played by the alma maters of his colleagues at Broder Bros., a sporting-goods distributor. Tyra, the CEO of the company, would bang out articles that spoofed several teams, coaches and players, then distribute them to his buddies via email.

“I did that for a long time,” the 53-year-old Tyra said, sitting in a conference room outside his office on the Louisville campus earlier this month. “It became a Sunday morning deadline, I had to get the article out. I’ve since moved on from that job.”

Tyra’s job now is to craft an altogether different story, one of redemption for the tarnished Louisville Cardinals. It could be a tough plot line to pull off. The story arc could well depend on how the NCAA deals with what could be the most controversial of all the cases to come out of the federal investigation of college basketball.

The NCAA will be tasked with finding a balance between crediting the Cardinals for a complete leadership overhaul and crushing the Cardinals for back-to-back major scandals. Tyra, an athletic administration outsider until 21 months ago, is trying to tip that balance in favor of his school.

Louisville and fellow Atlantic Coast Conference member North Carolina State figure to be the litmus tests for schools that have turned over their athletic administration since the federal corruption investigation broke in 2017. Both schools have new leadership in athletics and in the basketball office, but could still be vulnerable to institutional penalties that impact them. The eternal question of the fairness of punishing players and coaches who weren’t involved in the violations will inevitably be raised.

No school acted more decisively than Louisville in response to being implicated in the federal corruption scandal. But then again, no school needed to more than Louisville.

When Tyra holds organizational meetings with his athletic staff, he always begins it with a reminder: “We are on probation. Not the basketball program, the whole department.”

This is Louisville’s inconvenient truth. This is Louisville’s compromised position. This is the reality the school is trying to push into the past, even as it continues to loom over the future.

The Cardinals were hammered by the NCAA in June 2017 for the infamous strippers-and-prostitutes parties in an on-campus dorm that were arranged for recruits and players by staffer Andre McGee. Sanctions included vacating the 2013 national men’s basketball championship, leaving Louisville with the ignominious distinction of being the first school to lose a men’s hoops national title via scandal. Legendary coach Rick Pitino also was hit with a five-game suspension for the 2017-18 season, a penalty he opposed bitterly. The school already had self-imposed a postseason ban on the 2016-17 team, hoping that would mitigate the NCAA’s penalties, but it didn’t.

That was bad. What came out some three months after that NCAA ruling made the situation much, much worse.

When the FBI and the Southern District of New York began spilling forth the contents of its investigation into corruption in college basketball on Sept. 26, 2017, it didn’t take long to identify the school referred to in the federal indictment as “University-6.” That was Louisville, and its involvement in this sting operation was a disaster.

The feds alleged that a deal was struck between Louisville, apparel company Adidas and recruit Brian Bowen to become a Cardinal in exchange for $100,000. An FBI wiretap also recorded Louisville assistant Jordan Fair discussing arrangements for a deal for another recruit, who did not sign with the school. (In a trial a year later, Bowen’s father said he received $1,300 from Cardinals assistant Kenny Johnson, and prosecutors said Fair gave $900 to another, unnamed recruit.)

This sudden immersion in repeat NCAA offender territory left Louisville little choice but to act quickly and drastically. Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino and powerful athletic director Tom Jurich, who had transformed the athletic department into one worthy of inclusion in the ACC, were placed on administrative leave the day after the feds announced their investigation. Both were fired shortly thereafter.

Into this chasm of a leadership void stepped Tyra, who had never worked in college athletic administration. Most figured he would hold the job for a matter of weeks, maybe months. But by March 2018, the son of an all-time Louisville basketball great, Charlie Tyra, was taking on the job full-time.

By then, he had already started envisioning the roadmap back to respectability. Part of that journey was a meeting in late 2017 with NCAA brass, wherein Tyra stated his case to president Mark Emmert, general counsel Donald Remy and then-vice president Oliver Luck, who oversaw Enforcement.

“These are the steps we’re going to take to be a different poster child — for the good, not the bad,” Tyra told them. “We’re going to run a clean program and we’re going to teach that.”

Tyra has followed up that intent with action. He’s not just talked in vague platitudes; he’s gotten specific and gotten busy.

In a gesture of commitment to balancing Louisville’s athletic budget, Tyra cut his own 2017-18 salary by $350,000. “We got rid of some wants versus some needs,” he said. That was part of a restructuring that included getting rid of some staff, including three high-ranking athletic department members — most notably Tom Jurich’s son, Mark.

Last October, Tyra ponied up $100,000 more of his own money to start an Ethical Leadership Excellence Program via the U of L business school. Of note: Adidas is kicking in $1 million over 10 years to the project.

That communion of the scandal-scarred was greeted by more than a few jokes around the college athletic landscape — of all entities to be partnering to promote ethical leadership?

Tyra bristled at the mockery. This is part of that plan to become a poster child for good.

“Winning through virtues,” he said. “I personally invested to start that.”

The commitment to compliance has translated to written goals. Tyra had a goal sheet printed that has this as its No. 1 objective: “At the end of 2023, the University of Louisville athletic department will be able to say that, in the past three years, there have been no Level I or Level II NCAA violations by anyone affiliated with the department.”

Of course, NCAA judgement figures to be handed down long before anyone knows whether that goal is met.

Louisville does not appear to be at the front end of the NCAA’s enforcement pipeline of cases. More notices of allegations are coming in relative short order, but Tyra said that no investigators have come to campus for interviews. Nothing appears imminent — but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Tyra said. “What we do know, internally, we’re comfortable with. But I don’t know that you ever feel total comfort when you’re dealing with these scenarios — and, more importantly, how the NCAA intends to handle it.”

How the NCAA handles Louisville — the most proactive of all scandal-implicated schools, but also the most compromised — will be a fascinating case. Vince Tyra is doing his best to write a happy ending, but the outcome seems far beyond his control.

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