CRAWFORD | Tom Jurich: Building a Louisville legacy - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Tom Jurich: Building a Louisville legacy

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LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- From the window of my room in Threlkeld Hall as a student at the University of Louisville in the 1980s, I could look out and see a chain-link fence, a parking lot and a railroad track. If I left the dorm and walked up the steps to the pedestrian crossing over the tracks, I could cross Floyd Street and go into a convenience store, or a Laz-R-Graphics copy place. At the other end of Floyd, next to McDonald's, there was an EconoLodge, with a Frisch's across the street.

I'm not sure what was on down Floyd Street, because I never went down there. Part of it was a railroad yard that was later found to be environmentally toxic.

On Monday, right smack on top of that land, Tom Jurich, from the press room of a $15.2 million basketball, volleyball and lacrosse practice facility, reflected on his 15 years as University of Louisville athletic director.

He did not start the building boom on U of L's Belknap Campus. But he sure looks like he will be the one to finish it.

Instead of a convenience store and copy shop, today there is Ulmer Stadium for softball. On the site of a gravel parking lot there is the track & field and soccer stadium. Gone is the EconoLodge, which once served as a U of L dorm. In its place is a field hockey facility that has played host to two Final Fours. Those buildings are all Jurich's doing.

Jurich's arena at U of L has been in athletics, not just as athletic director, but now as university vice president for athletics. But his legacy will extend beyond athletics, because it can legitimately be argued that no single person has had as great an influence on the physical makeup of U of L's main campus as Tom Jurich has.

The athletics facilities -- take a look here at a list at those built since 1995 -- in turn spurred development around campus, restaurants, a grocery store, other retail businesses. Those spurred an interest in more on-campus living. The university had a master plan to expand and change the face of its campus, but there can be no disputing that athletic construction has been a catalyst.

EARLY DAYS

It's a long way from when Jurich first arrived at U of L. Trustees Harry Jones and Sam Rechter had flown out to Fort Collins, Colo., for a 20-minute talk with Jurich. He remembered they met up with him at a golf course, took him to a condo they'd rented, put a Bud Light in each hand and started pitching.

When he got to U of L's campus, he didn't find much. U of L women's sports had a few locker room facilities, but little else that wasn't a leftover men's facility or one that was shared -- on unequal terms. Title IX consultant Lamar Daniel told him he'd have to cut three sports to make the numbers work for gender equity and Jurich took a pass on the job -- one of four he took before finally accepting it.

"They had a beautiful campus interior," Jurich said. "And maybe the ugliest front lawn I'd ever seen. . . . I thought, I can't take the job, because I'm a builder. I don't want to drop sports, I want to build sports. And he said financially you won't be able to do it. I think everybody remembers us going through all that and it was painful, but I think this school will be better off for it for the next hundred, two hundred years, because we did strive for excellence in Title IX, and we strived to be the best we could be with a major football program. And looking at it now, are we the best? Absolutely not. But we're in the conversation, which is good."

Tom the builder didn't create the passion for building U of L's sports facilities program by program, but he did tap into it like no one ever had. He sought out Owsley Brown Frazier, who made it his personal mission to plug Jurich into this community, where families like the Pattersons, Ulmers and Tragers were moved to make major contributions to changing the face not just of U of L sports, but its campus.

There also was an NCAA issue to deal with in men's basketball. It was being hit with a second major violation in five years. Eventually, U of L would escape more serious sanctions by avoiding the "major" tag on a second set of violations. And Jurich had to find a new football coach, immediately, with a 1-win program and a new stadium coming on line, he arrived at a crucial moment.

DIFFICULT TIMES

Jurich has endured his share of crises. I was around when he was receiving threats of all kinds during Denny Crum's final season.

They didn't make a betting line, but the over/under on Tom Jurich's remaining time at U of L probably wouldn't have been much more than five years during those days. It was tough. The fan base was fractured, and Jurich was along the dividing line.

I was there when Jurich found out that Bobby Petrino had been meeting with Auburn University officials. At least, I was on the other end of the phone. I read him a note from Auburn admitting what it had done, who was on the plane with Petrino at a secret meeting at a Sellersburg, Ind., airport, and he said, "Whoa, baby." He didn't express anger (except for a bit at Auburn administration). He wasn't ruffled. He was calm. Petrino was in the car on the way to Jurich's home. But Jurich already knew what he wanted to do. There was no hesitation. He said that he knew Petrino had screwed up, but he was a young coach and he was going to work with him to get through this. There was, however, going to be a very frank discussion.

After cutting Petrino that break, the coach a year later would pursue the job at LSU just months after persuading Jurich that he wanted a long-term contract extension. I think Jurich would have let Petrino go after the 2004 Liberty Bowl had the cost, financially and otherwise, not been so high. Instead he rode it out, and rode the program's success all the way to the Orange Bowl in the 2006 season.

You don't work for very long with Jurich without realizing his passion for what he does is no act. I know during Steve Kragthorpe's tenure, I wrote things that didn't sit well in the athletic office. I know he wanted pretty badly to say something, but he never did. In fact, in that difficult period, little was said at all. One thing about Jurich, he doesn't separate himself from the work he's doing. He'd probably prefer to be attacked directly than to have someone go after one of his programs or a coach he's hired.

Even at that point, with football struggling, and I wrote this many times, all he had done for U of L's program earned him the leeway to do whatever he wanted with the coaching situation. A lot of fans didn't feel that way. They stopped coming. It was a tough time. And fans were far tougher on him than I was in print.

Jurich and I sat down near the end of that coaching regime and talked for about 40 minutes. If I'd been a betting man then, I'd have bet that given the heat he was taking from fans, much of it personal in nature, Jurich would be around for a few more years, would right the football ship, then move on.

I was half right. The football program is flying once again.

But Jurich isn't going anywhere.

U of L gave him a lifetime contract in 2002, then extended it in 2006. I've said before, if it wants to give him another extension, it'll have to extend his actual life.

The good news for U of L fans is that, 15 years in, Jurich seems poised to give that lifetime contract a run for its money.

"I want to keep working. I don't see myself ever retiring," Jurich said. "My dad's goal in life was to hit 58 or 60 or whatever retirement age was so he could go play golf. He retired as a senior vice president at TransAmerica. Worked hard, hard, hard, got to retire, played golf for about two months and said, 'What the hell am I doing?' He was bored to death. . . . I don't look forward to that day I retire. I want to keep going, as long as they'll have me. I know there will be an ending sometime. But right now I'd like to go another 15 years. I'd like to see this place be the best it can possibly be."

It was at the tail end of that difficult football period that Jurich experienced one of his proudest moments in the position. When the women's basketball team went to the Final Four, and then the NCAA title game, it marked a remarkable culmination at U of L.

From those days of virtually non-existent facilities, from the board meetings when he was openly questioned on why in the world he would think it smart to move women's basketball games to Freedom Hall when they weren't even filling a high school gym at the time, the rise to national title game was virtually unthinkable.

On the highlight reel of Jurich's career, amid the BCS Orange Bowl victory, the College World Series, the men's basketball Final Fours, men's soccer reaching the national championship game, that appearance in the signature women's sports championship marked perhaps one of his most significant achievements.

BIG HIRES, BIG PLANS

Jurich's signature hire at U of L was persuading Rick Pitino, the former UK coach, to come to Louisville. The two have a working relationship that is beyond close.

During a news conference to talk about his 15th anniversary at the school, Jurich couldn't let Pitino leave without putting him on the spot to announce a contract extension right there in front of reporters. Pitino shook his head, "What, so I can die on the court?" he replied. But expect the extension to get done. Pitino has thought a great deal about his end game in recent years. Jurich says he's determined not to let that happen soon.

"I want him to sign it," Jurich said. "I want to take him out another five, and then to age 70. As you see, he's 60 going on 35. I really believe that, because we see it every day. . . . This guy's got more energy than any human alive. I think it would be a crime to see him retire."

When Pitino was in the midst of a public firestorm after revelations of events surrounding an extortion attempt against him created a huge public scandal, the one person most in his corner was Jurich. If others inside and outside the university were wondering if Pitino shouldn't take a leave of some type, Jurich would have no part of it.

His loyalty to coaches and friends is legendary. Every coach at U of L can tell a story. This week, football coach Charlie Strong, who spent 20 years waiting for the chance to become a head coach, told the story of when Jurich came to his house to interview him for the U of L coaching job.

There was no interview. Jurich asked him only one question: "Are  you going to take the job?"

Jurich did all his homework ahead of him. Seth Hancock, a longtime friend of Strong's, persuaded Jurich of Strong's quality and character. Jurich spoke with Tony Dungy, whom he had gotten to know in his stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers and later through a job at the University of Minnesota. He talked to Urban Meyer. He had done all his homework when the time to speak to Strong finally came.

He tells the story:

"I said before we get started with the interview, let's have three rules," Jurich recounted. "He said, 'What's that?' I said, 'Don't have a book. I don't want to see a book. All these coaches have the same recycled book saying I want do this and that and these are my rules.' I said I don't want to see a book. I said, 'I want you in sweat clothes, or Levi's or golf shirt or whatever is comfortable. Don't get in a three-piece suit.' And I said, 'I want your entire family there.' He said, 'My kids?' I said, 'Yes, your kids too." So I went to his house and I'll never forget, I went in and saw him and Vicky and said, before we get started, his little beautiful daughters were there, and I said, 'Before we start, I want to offer you the head job at the University of Louisville.' And he looked at her and I said, 'Well are you going to take it? If not, that was a wasted trip. So he said yes and they hugged. And just like his press conference here, it was a beautiful moment, something you won't ever see again. Those were just unscripted beautiful moments."

It was an emotional reaction from Strong. Today, with word swirling that Strong might be lured elsewhere, Jurich says he only hopes that he'll have a chance to persuade him to stay.

"I think he is a perfect fit at this university and in this community," Jurich said. ". . . But ultimately, that's his decision."

MOVING FORWARD

If you didn't know the college sports landscape, you'd walk through the manicured landscaping of U of L's athletic facilities and think Jurich would have to be reaching some kind of finish line.

Every single varsity sport has had a new facility built in the past 20 years, most of them in the past 10. Papa John's Cardinal Stadium was expanded, the football facility -- this time the training complex itself -- will undergo another expansion soon, and a $14 million soccer stadium is on the drawing board to be built across the street, a facility Jurich said he expects will have no equal among college facilities.

Of course, it's the landscape outside of campus that presents Jurich a challenge now. If you build it, in college sports, they don't have to come. Conference suitors have been interested in U of L. He engineered the school's move to its first power conference when U of L moved to the Big East in 2005. Now he's faced with trying to do it again.

"The thing is, I think we're very impressive to people out there, but you can't go to the dance unless somebody wants you to go with them," Jurich said. "So all we can do here is take care of things on this campus, make sure everything is the best we possibly can be. I said that when somebody asked me, do you feel stuck? I don't feel stuck in the Big East. I feel sorry for schools that are not in the league that are really on the outside looking in. The Big East has a lot of positives coming. This television contract, I don't have to tell anybody, is going to be a big thing. It's exciting. The thing the Big East has working against it right now is you have a bunch of new teams coming in. But the great bank of experience that I have to look back on, six or seven years ago when we came into the Big East, we were Central Florida. We were Houston. We were Temple. Name a school. That was us. I see what the Big East has done for us. And I remember at the time all the criticism the Big East took for taking us. I've worn that hat. That's why I won't ever criticize it."

Jurich never forgets what the program was when he arrived. In fact, he kind of revels in U of L's "little brother" identity. Whether fans realize it or not, that mindset fits exactly with the school's history. U of L's origins are humble. It was founded in 1798 under the name Jefferson Seminary. It didn't occupy its current Belknap Campus, where the new athletic facilities reside, for nearly 120 years. The university actually wanted its campus in the Highlands area of Louisville, where Bellarmine University is today, but Louisvillians voted down the tax increase to pay for it. So the school settled on its present day campus, where an orphanage resided.

It was a city college until 1970. But in just 40 years as a public state university, it has flourished. Still, that's a relatively short time when you're looking to join college conferences that have been well-established and fully funded for a couple hundred years.

Still, Jurich can point to athletic accomplishments and building that far exceed some programs that are more established and better-funded.

"I've said many times, I want to be little brother," Jurich said. "I want to be Avis. I want that, 'we try harder' atmosphere. I want that around our department and I want our people to be hungry for that. But my ultimate goal is that I want little brother to be 6'4 and 285. And that's what we've been able to do. We've been able to succeed in a lot of different ways. The thing the department has been so great about is that everybody has worked together to make this happen. The one goal I had when I came here was I didn't want to be just a one-sport town. I wanted a program that was good across the board."

Today, Jurich's toughest present challenge is keeping football viable outside of a power conference, particularly in scheduling. U of L has had a series canceled with Georgia. It has had talks with many high-level programs, only to have them back out for various reasons. Getting games is difficult. When the Michigan-Notre Dame series ended last month, Jurich said U of L was on the phone to Michigan that day. There has been no answer.

He's working hard on establishing a series with Indiana University. He wants to continue the rivalry with Kentucky. And he's pursuing any option he can find, but says he won't compromise the program by cutting deals that don't include home games for his program -- he has a stadium expansion to pay for, and feels the fan base deserves those games.

At the same time, downtown and within city government circles a chorus is starting to rise over U of L's agreement with the KFC Yum! Center. U of L got too good a deal, they're saying. Jurich, who wanted an arena nearer to campus, did not want to commit to playing downtown only to have the university's involvement used to lure an NBA team -- which university officials have long believed would drain its athletic programs of resources -- down the road. Jurich said this week that, "we will not stand in the way," of anything city leaders want to do with the arena. But he also said, "We've kept all our promises and done what we said we would do. . . . But we want to protect our contract."

He said the university's dream spot for an arena has always been right on the edge of campus, near Interstate 65, where four silos stand.

In the end, 15 years end, Jurich has become one of the most influential men in Louisville. A couple of months back, Rick Bozich and I sat down with U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. When talk turned to Jurich, McConnell spoke of him in the highest terms. McConnell has worked with national and world leaders in business and politics, so what he said about Jurich should be remembered in that perspective:

"Tom Jurich, of course, is an absolute genius," McConnell said. "In my line of work I've gotten to know a lot of successful people. I don't think I've ever met anybody who has done a better job of building an enterprise as he has, given what he had when he got here, and what it is today. An athletic department budget in the top 20 in the country, the only athletic department budget of that size not in a power conference, it's an extraordinary accomplishment. I'm proud of him and proud of what he's done."

Jurich has had offers to go elsewhere. He once interviewed at Indiana. Every once in a while word will come that inquiries have been made. There may have been times he felt like leaving. Now, he's staying. He won't tell you he's always been right. But he has been consistently passionate, and there's little question over which direction that passion flows, and for what it is directed. He may be consumed with blueprints, but he is red and black entirely.

"I challenge our staff to look in the mirror every day," Jurich said. "Who you see is your best friend or your worst enemy. And I choose to make it your best friend. But there are a lot of times I've looked in that mirror and seen my worst enemy. You go back and say I wish I'd have done this differently. But I don't have any regrets. This is me."

Copyright 2012 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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