CRAWFORD: To Louisville sports, Frazier leaves a legacy of love
LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Owsley Brown Frazier's legacy is etched in stone all over this city, quite literally. In bricks and mortar, university campuses and hospital complexes, athletic facilities and museums, high-rise buildings and low-income housing.
The Brown-Forman heir and one of the great philanthropists Louisville has ever known died Thursday after a long illness at age 77, and the tributes will come in proportion, surely, to the staggering amount he gave back. He helped raise more than a half-billion dollars for local schools and universities alone. And for every dollar and act of service we know about, you can take to the bank that there is another that we don't.
But no picture of the man is complete without this one. For all of his gravitas, the magnitude of his person and scope of influence, Frazier was a passionate sports fan. He loved the games, the players, the atmosphere. And not just the sports that grabbed the headlines. The last conversation I had with him, some time back, was about women's softball at his beloved University of Louisville.
Maybe this will illustrate better. Frazier had been ailing, but last Friday got out of the hospital for just a short time. Where did he go? To football practice at U of L. Frazier wanted to check up on the team. It was one of the last outings he would make. And there was, in all likelihood, nowhere else he would've chosen to be.
The tributes will all speak of how much Frazier gave to this place and that, and they should. Absolutely. What you shouldn't miss, however, was that Frazier was a friend, a mentor, to so many. In fact, those were the terms in which so many spoke of him Thursday. University of Louisville president James Ramsey called him a "dear, personal friend." Athletic director Tom Jurich called him, "my mentor and friend." Bellarmine basketball coach Scotty Davenport likened him to "a father figure."
Last Wednesday U of L football coach Charlie Strong heard Frazier wasn't doing well and walked away from a packed schedule to visit him in the hospital. The plan for Frazier's practice visit was hatched then. On Thursday, Strong called Frazier "a pioneer" and added, "He meant a lot to me."
One of Frazier's favorite gifts this past holiday season came from longtime friend Bill Stone. It was a signed picture of U of L quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, on which the sophomore had written a short message. Frazier loved it and said he was going to hang it in his suite.
"Now he's not going to get the chance," Stone said Thursday. "When I saw him last Wednesday he said, 'We will be at the U of L-UK game together.' And I believed him. . . . We know he's been sick for years, but he kept coming out of it. I used to say he had a heart as strong as a Louisville Water Company pumping station. And especially this time, I saw him last week and he looked and talked so great I thought, 'He's licked it again.' He wanted so much to go to the UK-U of L game. . . . Losing him is a tough blow."
Football games were emotional for Frazier and Stone. The two go back to the first days of Denny Crum, to the days of Lee Corso as football coach and Peck Hickman as athletic director. In those days, the U of L athletic association meetings would begin, Stone said, "With two hours of fellowship, followed by two hours of dinner with lots of beer and wine, then the business would start at about 10 o'clock at night.'"
One year Corso had a home game with Memphis that they promoted like crazy, and when the tickets at Fairgrounds Stadium were sold out, Hickman told them that was it. Frazier didn't want to stop. He and Stone hired extra security and sold 4,000 standing-room seats -- a catalyst to getting the stadium expanded.
Those were the days when Frazier was a lawyer at Brown-Forman, not the city's greatest benefactor. When U of L was leaving for the NCAA Tournament regional in Las Cruces, N.M., in 1975, athletic director Dave Hart looked around and Frazier wasn't to be found. He called him at his office and Frazier said, "I thought we were leaving in the morning."
Hart told Frazier to be at the airport in 20 minutes or they were leaving without him. How much did sports mean to Frazier? He took off running, tore out in his Mustang Mach 4 and made the airport out of breath, no luggage, no clothes packed, ready for the trip to the NCAA Tourney. Stone got on the plane's speaker to tell boosters they were holding a ULAA fundraiser, "Anybody who pays can listen to Owsley explain to his wife why he's not going to be at dinner tonight."
At that same regional, Frazier and Stone sat above Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps and got on him so hard that Frazier would swear for the rest of his life that Digger was about to come into the stands after them.
Frazier was no casual sports fan. His love of the games ran deep. He was involved in so many business and charitable pursuits, but he'd chuck anything if you called him with tickets to a game. He was a regular at Bengals games in the early days of Riverfront Stadium, and after once saying baseball was like "watching the paint dry," wound up a huge fan of the Louisville Redbirds and later the Louisville Bats.
"I remember the pure joy I saw on his face when we won the NCAA title in 1980 in Indianapolis," Stone said. "We saw each other running for the bus and we just hugged. That vision had come true. We were No. 1 in America, coached by a great friend of ours. I can still see the look on his face. I have never seen him ever so happy."
Davenport was an assistant to Denny Crum at U of L when his phone would ring out of the blue, with Frazier on the other end of the line.
"He just wanted to talk basketball," Davenport said. "He wanted to know how the guys were doing, how Denny was getting along. He wanted to talk about the game. He loved the game. We were at his house one time for a U of L event and I walk in and he waves me over. And I'm thinking, 'I grew up on Central Avenue, why's he pulling me aside of all the people here?' He wanted to talk basketball. He loved the kids. He was proud of what we were doing."
When Jurich arrived as athletic director, everyone told him he needed to go see Frazier. Jurich didn't know what to make of the advice, but he took it.
"I've always said that first meeting was like going to see the Wizard of Oz," Jurich said. "I get there and went through what seemed like seven secretaries, and I'm putting magnetic keys in doors, then they open the door to his office and I walk in and there's Owsley, this huge man behind a huge desk. And I just laid out my vision for him and we went through some of the tough decisions that were going to have to be made, with Ron Cooper in football and other things. He asked me some very pointed and tough questions. But from then on, through every hard time and tough decision, he was there for me. He took me under his wing. He was a true mentor and friend to me. He taught me what it was to dream big, and so much more, and I owe him more than I could ever say."
The pairing was a match. Frazier made it his personal mission to launch Jurich and the U of L athletic department to prominence. He had lunch with Jurich every day. He introduced him to every influential person in Louisville.
"I've never gained so much weight as I gained that first year with Owsley," Jurich joked, "We were having lunch five times a week. He'd say, 'You have to meet this person,' and he'd bring them in. And the thing about Owsley, when he calls you on the phone, nobody says no. His association was instant respect. And he had such a passion for this university, and for our department. His fingerprints are on everything our department has done. He loved the kids. He wanted to see them have greater opportunities. He did so much for women's sports."
Eventually, the Cardinal Park facility, the multi-sport "front lawn" for U of L's campus that spent years in the "wish list" phase before being made a reality largely through Frazier's fundraising efforts, would bear Frazier's name. He didn't want his name on it. Jurich, however, would not be deterred. I sat down with Frazier for a Courier-Journal interview after the project was completed, and he told me about sitting in U of L senior women's administrator Julie Hermann's office and looking out the window onto Floyd Street and on to Interstate 65, "And it was incredibly bad and horrible looking," he said. "And I just felt that with the problems we had with women's athletics, and the fact that we were probably in the lowest of the low in terms of our doing for the women's sports, I just made up my mind this was something we needed."
How did it get done, after so many years as little more than a dream?
"I had to call in a lot of favors," Frazier said, smiling.
For all he did for women's sports, certainly more financially than anyone in this city's history, time and again the phrase friends used to describe him on Thursday was, "a man's man."
"He was more comfortable with his buddies at a ball game than at any society event," Stone said. "It's what he loved. We're not going to see one like him again. We'll never see another civic leader of his resources who loves sports as much as he did. We will never see one. So many of the wealthy today are patrons of the arts. We'll never have another patron of the arts that you and I love, the arts on the ballfields, like Owsley Frazier."
Frazier's interest in sports was rivaled only in his passion for history and in his famed firearm collection. Frazier enjoyed the outdoors and nature. My dad, longtime Courier-Journal columnist Byron Crawford, remembered a visit with Frazier at his farm between Waddy and Graefenburg (Frazier particularly liked stopping in to eat at the Waddy Truck Stop).
"What he loved best of all when he was at his home on the lake . . . was to sit in a great room, with a large window along one wall in his cabin, and watch deer and other wildlife feeding at a feeding station he'd set up across the lake," Crawford said. "I think he even had a telescope locked onto the site. He had built a cascading stream that tumbled out of the hills beside the cabin and into the lake."
Tonight, at U of L and Bellarmine, and in places all over Louisville, the loss of Frazier resounds with the impact of a giant oak falling.
"What we have lost," Davenport said, "is a great friend, a great force."
Stone said he and Frazier would exchange a fist bump after every U of L touchdown. No doubt, Frazier's absence will be noted in many places for years to come. You don't become a cornerstone of so many different things without leaving a sizable void.
"If the good Lord had to endow somebody with wealth, he got his right agent on earth with Owsley," Stone said. "Because nobody gave more compassionately, and more joyfully, asking for less in return, than Owsley Brown Frazier."
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