CRAWFORD | A personal perspective on 'The Year of the Cardinal'
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville commissioned its own commemoration of what it has dubbed, "The Year of the Cardinal." It aired Thursday night on ESPNU, and it was fine, as far as those things go. It hit all the highlights, had all the camera angles and interviews.
It succeeded more in some parts than others -- and in no part more than in the insightful retelling of the Cardinal women's basketball team's NCAA Tournament upset of Baylor through the words of Jeff Walz and his players.
But it took a wide-angle view of the year, as TV often does, and must, because of time constraints.
My view of "The Year of the Cardinal" came from the ground, in dozens of places and times, through bits remembered from players and coaches, and from just watching. The following is more personal remembrance than official record. Some of it the cameras caught, much of it they didn't. But with the year winding down and U of L's show having aired, it seems like this is a fitting place to look back.
I suppose it really got in gear with a text message. It had been a near-sleepless Tuesday night in November of last year, with word breaking about the ACC's impending decision to admit U of L, when I got a text message early on Wednesday morning, Nov. 28. The sender was Rick Pitino. The message was pretty clear
"We r in"
Seldom does news break in quite that way. All I had to do was post a screen shot. That about said it all.
But it didn't say it all. The news was the result of 11 days of frantic work by U of L athletic director Tom Jurich, who came back to Louisville from vacation after Maryland announced its departure from the ACC, and took Louisville from underdog to new ACC member in about a week.
Louisville had been shut out by the Big 12 Conference in favor of West Virginia. This was a make-or-break challenge for Jurich.
"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," Jurich said at the time.
He rallied allies at Florida State, Duke and Clemson, along with staunch Big East friends in Syracuse and Notre Dame. As late as a day before the announcement, officials in the U of L president's office hadn't even discussed contingencies for the school getting in -- or being turned down by -- the ACC. The decision came that quickly.
And quietly. Tom Jurich usually talks to somebody. Friends. Coaches. Pitino. Somebody. This time he talked to no one. He locked himself in his office. Nobody got anything from him.
U of L sports information director Kenny Klein didn't even have an ACC sign for the press conference. He had to find one and have a printer blow it up on short notice. He was still fastening it to the backdrop when reporters arrived.
I had backed out of the U of L football team's trip to Rutgers, thinking that the ACC news would be bigger, and not realizing it would break so soon. As it turned out, Steve Andress of WDRB was the only local TV reporter in New Jersey when the Cardinals arrived, and the upcoming game wasn't the first thing on the agenda.
Reports broke that Cardinals coach Charlie Strong had spoken to Auburn (remember those?) and Strong was upset that the news -- which he denied -- had come out on the eve of a game that could put his team into a BCS bowl.
Nobody gave the Cards a great shot of winning that game, with Teddy Bridgewater's wrist broken and his ankle sprained.
Bridgewater, however, came off the bench to write himself into U of L history. Next Fall, I have contracted to publish a book, "100 Things Louisville Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die." They better know what Bridgewater did that night. He limped. He led. He improvised. The shovel pass to Jeremy Wright. The TD pass to DeVante Parker. The embraces after the game from Charlie Strong. The tearful embrace in the tunnel from Shawn Watson.
"Years from now," I wrote the morning after, "people will still remember the night Bridgewater played through a broken wrist to throw for 263 yards and two lightning-bolt touchdowns in 16 seconds that changed the storyline of a team and a program. You do that when you're healthy, you're a hero. You do it with a broken wrist, and you're history. In a good way."
Within three days, U of L had gone from a fairly sleepy place with a highly ranked basketball team to a new member of the ACC with a BCS bowl game to prepare for.
I'll always remember the Sugar Bowl as my baptism in television. It wasn't baptism by fire, however, but by water.
After the game, I tried to stick with Charlie Strong. I followed him off his press conference podium. He greeted some reporters who cover the University of Florida, then wandered back to the U of L locker room, where he turned at a smaller room in which his assistant coaches were sitting and saw offensive line coach Dave Borbely. "Borbs! What the ----?!" Strong screamed, smiling. "I told you."
He'd told them all month they would beat Florida in the trenches. They had.
My story written, the job was only half done. WDRB News in the Morning wanted us on -- live. We would go on television twice an hour, in the rain, under a makeshift tent set up by WDRB's Kenny Bradley. And thank goodness for the tent. It was cold. We hadn't slept since the previous morning. We stood and shivered and talked, and took turns taking naps in the satellite truck between live hits.
If this was how TV was, I wasn't sure how long I was going to last. At one point, I'm pretty sure Andress told Louisville's largest morning news audience that we'd been drinking Red Bull and Vodka. If only!
We pulled up stakes a few hours later and left New Orleans. We would be back.
Throughout the summer and fall, I'd been meeting regularly with Pitino to work on his book, The One-Day Contract. One day, we were talking about a chapter titled, "Heeding the Signs." He was talking about how some players could read situations and make the right moves, while others seemed oblivious. Then he thought about Gorgui Dieng. The junior big man was, almost certainly, headed for the NBA. He came from a culture with no professional basketball, but he had a better handle on seeing what he needed to do and doing it than any of his teammates.
He called Dieng on the phone and within 10 minutes, Dieng was sitting in his office, telling us his view on learning, and why he was able to heed signs that others miss.
For about 20 minutes, Dieng spoke, and when he was finished, Pitino just looked at him, and at me, and said, "Well, there you go." Much of that conversation is included in Pitino's book. With Pitino and his players, there's always a coach-player line. But with Dieng, and with Peyton Siva, and even with Russ Smith, there's something a bit deeper. Pitino brought Dieng in at that moment, and wanted to hear from him, because he admired and respected him.
Nobody much thought the Cardinals were headed for a national championship when they lost to Syracuse and Villanova. After a five-overtime loss to Notre Dame, the city went into panic mode. I met with Pitino two days later and he was upbeat and smiling. He didn't seem troubled in the least.
The Cardinals would not lose again. Senior Days are often emotional nights, but I've never seen one like Siva's, his family descending on him after the game to place leis around his neck, and the necks of his teammates and coaches. No one will ever leave the way Siva left that night, leis up to the top of his head.
U of L's best chance at losing in the postseason came in the Big East Tournament championship game. The Cards fell behind by 16 to Syracuse in the first half. They won by 17. For most, Montrezl Harrell's big second half and that win made for an indelible memory. For me, the memory came much later, at about 3 a.m. Andress and I were wrapping up our work, just about the last media members left at the Garden.
I wandered out to the court in the Garden, where the only people left were workers breaking down the court for the next event. I noticed that the rims had been lowered -- and that the nets were still on them. U of L had not cut them down, and would not until they won the national title. I mentioned this to Andress, who scrounged a pair of scissors and before I knew it had cut both down.
We didn't really tell anyone, not wanting to insert any kind of karma, for better or worse, into anything.
We just kept plugging away. Through the early rounds in Rupp Arena. Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy came down after his press conference, shook hands with his old roommate, Tom Jurich, and told him, "Buckle up. . . . They're going to win it all." Through the regional in Indianapolis. I was right behind Mike Krzyzewski when Kevin Ware broke his leg. I saw it raised, but didn't realize what I was looking at until after Fred Hina and Vinny Tatum had covered it with a towel. There was a lot of shock after that game. Luke Hancock, who had knelt with Ware as trainers tended to him, talked about how he would've wanted someone with him.
That story became one of the biggest sports stories the city has seen, at least in the social media age. FoxNews and CNN set up studios in U of L's Yum! Center basketball complex.
U of L was headed to the Final Four, but Ware was an even bigger story, in some ways.
And yet, one of my biggest memories from that day is the scene of reporters huddled around TVs in the media room after the men's game, watching another U of L team -- the women's basketball team -- as it completed an upset of top-ranked Baylor, in what some have called the greatest upset in the history of the women's game. They would go on to knock off Tennessee and reach the Final Four themselves, setting U of L up to have the men playing in Atlanta and the women in New Orleans.
I wrote that it truly did make U of L a "Commuter School," and Marc Murphy graciously credited me in a cartoon he did illustrating the idea for The Courier-Journal.
After leaving the newspaper, just seeing events sometimes is a challenge. Schools and media relations officials are used to television stations just worrying about shooting games, not about needing vantage points from which to write. And the Final Four was in a transition year anyway, greatly reducing the number of media sitting courtside. I spent about 10 minutes in my assigned seat for the men's semifinal and championship game. I was so far away, I couldn't distinguish between players. I wound up watching both games on TV.
One of my most vivid memories of the national semifinal win over Wichita State is sitting across the table from Mitch Albom in the press room, and turning the corner into the U of L locker room after the game and seeing Tim Henderson absolutely swamped. There was no getting near him. Soft-spoken and nervous when interviewed a day earlier, I could only imagine what was going through his mind.
The next morning, Rick Pitino would be introduced with his Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class. I wouldn't be there. Steve Andress and I -- along with Jody Demling of Cardinal Authority -- were piling into a WDRB Station van and heading back to New Orleans to watch the women face Cal in their national semifinal.
Once again in the top of an arena, I watched as U of L methodically came back on Cal. It trailed much of the way, but it kept being patient. Walz even had written, "Patience" on the white board at halftime. Antonita Slaughter made six three-pointers, and after trailing the whole game the Cardinals stunned Cal by taking the lead late, then held it to crash into the national championship game for the second time in five years.
Now, there were several memorable moments. Talking to Monique Reid, who sat at her locker and was overcome by tears. "I'm pushing," she said. "I'm hurting every day. But I'm pushing through. I have so much love for this program."
Later that night, we ran into Walz at the hotel bar. He was talking about his players, and his team. He noted that every team they'd played had something to attack, to exploit. UConn, who U of L would face in the final, however, had no weakness. "They're five great players," Walz said. "And behind them, they have five more great ones. And a great coach."
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, as his team headed out for its semifinal, saw Walz in the hallway and stopped in front of him, feigning bending down to kiss Walz's ring.
The next morning, we were back in the car, seven hours to Atlanta, and the NCAA championship. U of L's documentary on ESPNU caught Peyton Siva's brilliance, Luke Hancock's three-point shooting, Montrezl Harrell's dunk. It missed Gorgui Dieng carrying the Cards, facilitating the offense early. And it missed Chane Behanan's monstrous second half, which may have been the biggest key of all.
When you cover a team all year, and they win a championship, it ceases to become your story. It becomes everyone's story. You find yourself fighting a crowd. I remember having questions for Pitino and players in the postgame news conference, but never getting to ask them. Moderators call on the national people they know. Rarely do they ask anything insightful. They want the bigger picture. I want the little ones.
I'm always intrigued by what's left behind in locker rooms after teams leave. What's written on the boards. In U of L's locker room after the team departed, there were just some empty carton's of Pitino's favorite coconut water, and the word, "Humility" scrawled on a white board.
You write the best story you can. I wrote about the lives, the players, the confluence of storylines. Later when I talked to Pitino by phone, he said, "Can you believe that? Can you believe all of those things?"
There was work to be done. A book, nearly completed, had to be recast with a national championship story to tell. Pitino was offered larger advances from other publishers, but there was a catch. They wanted him to get a higher-profile writer. I told him it was his book, that he could do what he felt like he needed to do with no hard feelings from me. He told me he wasn't switching. It was bad karma, and he wanted only good.
It was a scramble to finish the book. He had celebrations. The Kentucky Derby. Trips with family. We worked up to the deadline, making changes on the fly. We only got to correct the manuscript once. Along the way, I compiled my stories from the men's basketball postseason into my own e-Book, which we distributed for free as a thank you to our readers.
And there was baseball. I was in Nashville when U of L's baseball team punched its ticket to the College World Series in Omaha. Matt Helms, a story every bit as improbable as Tim Henderson, punching a two-run single to win the first game against Vandy. Jeff Thompson, Big East pitcher of the year, overpowered them in the second. After the game, Nick Ratajczak, U of L's inspirational leader who had been injured and unable to play, turned around and felt a hand on his shoulder. It was U of L athletic director Tom Jurich. "You know, we're not here without you," Jurich said. "No sir," Ratajczak replied. "We're not here without you."
There was the trip to The White House with the championship basketball team in August. I'd never been in any kind of working capacity. Once again, in The East Room of the White House, we were roped into a small area on the side of the action. But we were in the room. Later, walking through what appeared to be a basement corridor, I noticed portraits of First Ladies. You always want to stop and look. There isn't time. Afterward, Andress and I nearly missed getting back to the Baltimore airport because a reporter from C-SPAN took our camera by mistake. I had to hire a taxi from D.C. to Baltimore. It wasn't until writing this that I have realized, I never turned in the $100 cab fare.
The ride, the whole year, was worth it. The drives. The rain. The stand-ups. The stories. You cover one such event in a year, and you feel like you've had something big. You cover four in the same year, and you feel like you've seen something you won't see again.
Andress and I went to Springfield to cover Pitino's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. About a week later, Pitino's book came out.
The first book I ever signed, it turned out, was for Jenny Sawyer, executive director of admissions at U of L, who gave me one of my first college jobs many, many years ago, working summers on the orientation staff at U of L.
It was very much a different school then, and a different place altogether. But it seems like a good place to wrap up.
Not much of what happened in the past year would've seemed possible for U of L in those days. Now, its fans will wait to see if it can ever do it again.
But years like that one don't come along very often. In fact, it's possible they come around only once. The memories, however, last far longer.
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