CRAWFORD | How U of L changed its conference fate in 11 days - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | How U of L changed its conference fate in 11 days

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich knows better than to answer his phone on vacation. He picked up anyway. He was in Florida with his wife Terrilynn during U of L's football bye week. It was Saturday, November 17, at 9 o'clock in the morning. The call came in, and it was Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports, wanting to know what Jurich thought of Rutgers and Maryland leaving for the Big Ten.

It was the first Jurich had heard of it. The Rutgers move didn't surprise him. Around the Big East, Rutgers' value in the New York City market was well known, and it was assumed that it would be the school's ticket to a power conference soon enough. But Maryland?

"I didn't see that one coming," Jurich said.

But he immediately saw what it meant.

"I knew it was time to get into gear," Jurich said on Wednesday after U of L had accepted an invitation to replace Maryland in the Atlantic Coast Conference. "We went to work immediately, and haven't stopped since."

The ten days between Forde's phone call to Jurich and the ACC's phone call to U of L president James Ramsey informing him of the unanimous vote to invite U of L to the conference were filled with talk and tension for Jurich. And he talked only to people who mattered. Anyone seeking input for a story in the media got a busy signal. Jurich didn't even talk with his own staff or coaches. Following the same policy from the president's office, Ramsey and Jurich ran a two-man game in a high-stakes realignment bid. And they won.

Cutting his Florida vacation short, Jurich arrived back home in Louisville to widespread media reports that the ACC's decision already had been largely made -- the ACC would tap Connecticut to replace Maryland and move on quickly. UConn had the more coveted academic profile and the larger television market. It is located in ESPN's backyard, and at least one initial ESPN report on the air mentioned UConn and no other school when talking ACC replacements.

"They already had UConn, not penciled in, but penned in," Jurich said. "You saw the same reports I did."

Jurich had seen that situation before. Last October, when the Big 12 was looking to add one more school to bring its number to 10, the league picked West Virginia nearly before the exit agreement was dry with Nebraska. Then U of L charged in, and a good many around the conference liked what they saw.

"We came in the back door," Jurich said. "We came in and West Virginia already had the offer. Once we got our shot, we were very impressive to the Big 12, I know we were because I know so many people in that room, but once they got to 10 that was it. We never really got up to bat."

Though the initial stories were that he might encounter the same situation with the ACC, Jurich was determined to take his cuts.

There's nothing magical that can be done to begin to persuade 11 schools to change their view of you in two weeks or less. The only way to get by is with a little help from your friends. Fortunately, Jurich has accumulated many of them. Working alone, he started making calls.

"Every waking hour," Jurich said. "This has been the only thing. I pulled in every marker I had in the United States. I really did. Every marker I had in 29 years as an AD, I pulled in, from TV people to other league commissioners to professional sports. Anyone who could vouch for us, I asked them. You've got to sell yourself."

Jurich started out with television. He faced two main obstacles, most believed. The first, and most serious, was that U of L's television market was too small, or at least, certainly smaller than Connecticut's. The second was that U of L's academic profile didn't match the ACC's.

Jurich went to work talking to television executives, compiling information about U of L's television performance, looking for ways to turn the conversation away from a strict count of households.

"One thing I got sick and tired of hearing about was the TV markets," Jurich said. "I got sick and tired of it. I can use school X, it's in city Y, which has 25 million people -- and there's one on both coasts -- but if nobody's watching you, what's the difference?"

On the question of academics, Ramsey knew he had a university that did not fit the ACC's profile, but he also had one that was making fast strides. His approach was to sell the ACC on the school's "trajectory," focusing as much on the direction the school is going, rather than its commuter school past.

It didn't hurt that Holden Thorp, chancellor of the University of North Carolina, had been a young associate professor when Ramsey was there as a vice chancellor. Thorp, after the announcement, referred to Ramsey as "a longtime friend of UNC."

"It helps when someone will answer your calls," Ramsey said.

In the end, Ramsey said, there was surprisingly little discussion about academics. But he had given the league enough of a reason to take U of L that it wouldn't be used as a reason to pass on the Cardinals.

Still, it's not enough to make your case to a conference, Jurich has learned. You need others making the case for you. And in this, Jurich found some significant allies within the league -- Florida State, Clemson and Syracuse.

"A lot of people in the conference really supported us," Jurich said. "I have a lot of friends in this league, especially Florida State and Clemson, but Syracuse (AD) Daryl Gross is somebody that really was a big player in this for us, simply because he knows our school and could vouch for our school because he'd been here, he'd seen U of L, he knew how we performed, and he was the one who could be the voice for our school. He could talk to the rest of the ACC and say this is what they're all about."

Florida State AD Randy Spetman was the athletic director at Air Force when Jurich was the AD at Colorado State, just up the road.

"We go way back," Jurich said of Spetman. "He and I have a strong relationship, and I also have that with the AD at Clemson."

Former Big East member Notre Dame couldn't help U of L as non-voting ACC member, but it turns out their former AD, Kevin White, who was instrumental in U of L getting into the Big East, now is AD at Duke.

"You need advocates, and not only advocates, but advocates that their commissioner and presidents could trust," Jurich said. "Across the board. I've been fortunate enough to make a lot of contacts and I called every one of them."

There were good days and bad, more based on a feel for the proceedings than any hard evidence. There was no way of knowing for sure. Was Jurich worried?

"Every second of every day," he said. "And I don't say that facetiously. Because we put so much effort, not just as an athletic department but as a university into this program, and so many things can happen that are out of your control."

On the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 27, ten days after Forde's call to Jurich, nobody at U of L woke up thinking they'd be holding an ACC news conference the next day.

A phone call to Ramsey's office to check out some North Carolina media rumblings about some possible movement revealed that the school's contingency meeting for publicity and marketing of some kind of conference change wasn't scheduled to happen until Friday.

Some of Jurich's closest associates had no inkling, though he said on Wednesday he'd felt positive for a while. For instance, when the men's basketball team went to the Bahamas two days before Thanksgiving, Jurich canceled plans to spend a couple of days there to stay back in the office and work the phones.

"You try to do this close to the vest," Jurich said. "Because there's so much that can get out and high-quality information that you need to keep close to the vest. So Dr. Ramsey and I took this one on our own."

As the day went on, activity heated up. By that afternoon, the president's office was working on plans for how to handle an announcement -- still not knowing what a timetable might be, or if the preparation would even be necessary.

Late in the afternoon, the ACC filed a $52.2 million suit against Maryland to claim its exit fee. That move gave Jurich and Ramsey the feeling that another move might be coming.

Once the Maryland suit was filed, things ramped up. Jurich said he stayed in the office late into the night. ESPN's Andy Katz reported that the last-minute pushes by Connecticut and Cincinnati were intense. Jurich said he never discussed other schools and merits or drawbacks. He just lobbied everyone in the league who would listen, and hoped the votes went his way.

"I don't think we've ever been presumptuous because we know what's at stake," Jurich said. "We knew the ACC told everybody they were going to go fairly quickly."

News began breaking around 11 p.m. that the ACC would vote on Wednesday. At U of L, they had known that ACC conference call of presidents was coming. Now they were learning its purpose -- to vote on U of L, up or down. Even a day before, their assumption had been that U of L, Cincinnati and Connecticut could all be in play. In any event, they also assumed that the vote would be close. They needed 75 percent of the votes to earn an invitation. Jurich called everybody he could think of -- again. He left the office feeling good about his chances. But not sure.

"I never did feel completely sure," Jurich said. "You second guess yourself at every turn. I went to bed last night, it was very late, and I was asking myself, 'Did you do this? Did you leave this uncovered?'"

Ramsey arrived at his office Wednesday morning, ready to hear the news of an expected ACC vote. He'd seen the reports.

"We knew there was going to be a meeting," Ramsey said. "I was in the office early like I always am and received a call at 7:40. So I was surprised. I thought it would be later in the morning. And I called Tom, and then I called (Big East commissioner) Mike Aresco. Next thing I know, it's public."

Jurich took the call at home.

"The first thing that went through mind, I was really happy for our fans," Jurich said. "Then I called some of our coaches and they were elated. And I had to call (SID) Kenny Klein immediately and tell him, 'You've got a full day ahead of you.'"

I texted basketball coach Rick Pitino a little after 8 a.m., and he responded, "It would be great for U of L if it happened." A few minutes later, he shot another text back that read, "We r in."

Here's how quickly it happened. Klein was thinking about setting up the afternoon press conference, and realized he didn't have any kind of ACC sign. He went to the school's marketing department to figure out which printer could do the work quickly, then found a recent conference logo and put in the order.

The day U of L announced it had joined the Big East, there had been enough lead time to put up a billboard. Not this time. Klein was still hanging the ACC sign on the U of L backdrop when reporters arrived in the afternoon.

So many years, so much work, and it was over in one frenzied 24-hour period, almost sneaking up on everybody.

"Eleven days," Jurich said. "I'm tired, man. I'm worn out. I knew we were doing the right thing. I just didn't know if we could get it done."

"I felt, and it's my own fault because I internalize things so much, that I had the whole city on my shoulders, because this program means so much to us, and to this city."

Things moved so swiftly that many important particulars were not discussed. U of L knows it will be in the ACC's Atlantic Division for football and baseball. But it does not know whether it will begin ACC play in 2013 or 2014. It doesn't know the financial particulars of ACC membership.

"We never delved into any logistics about this league," Jurich said. "I've been flying at 30,000 feet. Now we'll delve into it next week."

The vacation can't resume quite yet. The very night of the ACC invitation, news reports claimed that U of L football coach Charlie Strong may have spoken to Auburn.

Before that broke, Jurich had said when asked about Strong, "We're going to do everything we can to keep our coaches. There comes a point where they have to want to be here."

So the celebration period may be short. The resumption of Jurich's vacation will have to wait. But the bigger story is not just what happened with conference affiliation and the 11 days of work that changed U of L's affiliation, but the 15 years of building that led up to it.

"We're putting a huge investment in to this," Jurich said. "We're bringing our own. We're not asking anyone to do anything for us. A lot of people that I called on had been here and seen us, and the wow factor took over.

"From Day 1, we were able to walk it. We were able to show people what we have. Now, trust me, there are a lot of nice buildings around the country. It's who's in those buildings and locker rooms that make the difference. Hopefully, this will be something that will still be making a difference here 50 years from now."

Copyright 2012 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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