LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Today, for the University of Louisville athletic department, it is Moving Day.
Today, the university's 23 sports programs, their shiny new facilities, their coaches, athletic director and athletes cross the threshold into the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Today, U of L, perpetually the underdog, derisively called the "little brother" by rivals, always on the outside looking in, joins college sports' old money.
They will celebrate on Fourth Street, just blocks away from where their early home, the old Louisville Armory (now Louisville Gardens) stands empty, boarded up and in disrepair.
And while there is good reason to celebrate today, and it is proper that U of L and its fans should do so, it's also right to remember.
This has been a long time coming. With the help of two excellent books, Louisville Cardinal Football, by Jim Bolus and Billy Reed and Top of the Cards: A Look Back at 10 University of Louisville Basketball Teams by Mike Smith, here's a look back.
U of L traces its history back to 1798 and the founding of what was known then as Jefferson Seminary. It became the University of Louisville in 1846. In 1917, a tax proposal was put to a vote to allow the university to purchase a picturesque parcel of land donated by the Belknap family of Louisville for its permanent campus.
The tax was voted down. It wasn't the first time U of L would be told "no." But it persevered. It purchased land instead on what is now its Belknap Campus. (The Highlands property was purchased later by Bellarmine College.)
The school, which was the nation's first municipally funded university, had its successes. In 1911, it established the world's first emergency room.
Athletics, in those early years, were an afterthought. From the basketball team's founding in 1912 through the 1920s, it had a dozen homes, including the Brown Hotel on Fourth Street. It moved into Belknap Gymnasium, which still stands on the U of L campus, in 1931. It featured 600 seats, and one basket mounted to a brick wall. Head coach Laurie Apitz, without scholarships and looking to bolster numbers, signed some players from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, and put spittoons at each corner of the court to allow them to chew tobacco and play. When one opposing team won a game and slipped to the locker room with the game ball, Apitz stormed in to retrieve it. The program owned only three balls, and one had already been stolen.
In 1944, near the end of World War II, the university made a fateful move. John Heldman, chairman of the health and physical education department, talked Peck Hickman into leaving his present job and taking over at U of L. It was a risk for Hickman. Why? Hickman had been coaching for four years at Valley High School, and that was considered a better job. Hickman had to take a $600 pay cut to come to U of L.
The Louisville Times devoted five paragraphs to his hiring. There was no money. Hickman bought material from a second-hand store downtown and Haldman's wife made the uniforms. He bought used tennis shoes that left black marks on the court.
Many of Hickman's players were his own age, war veterans coming back to school. U of L had so many Navy recruits through its Navy V-12 training program that the team was known as the "Sea Cardinals" during Heckman's early years.
Hickman did the best he could with Belknap Gym's limited seating. He used chicken wire to box out a press area, and hooked up a loudspeaker so those outside could hear the game. On Dec. 2, 1944, Hickman's first game was a 99-22 victory over Georgetown College in front of a crowd of 350 at Belknap Gym. No one had ever seen anything like it in Louisville. The Cardinals had not broken 50 points, to anyone's memory. The 72-point margin of victory still stands.
The program was on its way. By 1947, U of L was looking to build a basketball facility on its campus, but wound up moving to the Armory downtown. In 1948, U of L won the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball championship, beating an Indiana State team coached by John Wooden, who would leave to become UCLA coach after the season. Some 5,000 fans greeted the team back in Louisville, and Hickman was offered the head coaching job at Texas. He turned it down. U of L was invited to play Kentucky, which had won its first NCAA championship that season, in the Olympic Trials. UK's Fabulous Five would pound the Cardinals 91-57, but the program was gaining momentum. The Cardinals also would lose to UK in the first round of the Wildcats 1951 championship run.
Over on the football side, head coach Frank Camp was making progress, too. A season preview story in The Courier-Journal that year said, "The (quarterback) battle is among four men, (Bill) Karns, (Jack) Browning and sophomores Jim Olmstead and Bill Campbell."
Unmentioned was a fifth player who, five games into the season, would take his place in the lineup and not give it up: Johnny Unitas.
Still times were difficult. The program couldn't award scholarships for two years during a de-emphasis of the sport, but in 1954 was allowed to give them again. Camp gave full scholarships to Lenny Lyles and four other African-American players, making U of L the first predominantly white university in the south to integrate its football program.
In 1959, the basketball program had a breakthrough. In Evanston, Ill., in the NCAA Tournament, the Cardinals trailed rival UK at half and Hickman had seen enough. He knew he had the better team that season, and told his players at halftime, "You know what's beating you? Those damn blue uniforms. You can bet this team if you forget all that 'big blue' tradition crap. But if you keep playing like this, you might as well join them and put on blue ones, too."
U of L won, 76-61. Rupp, after the game, told Cawood Ledford, "They just beat the hell out of us and ruined a beautiful season." Said Hickman: "We might've beaten them sooner if we'd had a chance to play them."
They wouldn't meet again for 24 years. U of L's history took another turn in 1971, when a young UCLA assistant arrived on campus. Denny Crum would make U of L a national name in athletics, with accomplishments that brought not only the university, but the city, along with it. Its first NCAA championship in 1980. When U of L next met UK, in 1983, dubbed "the Dream Game" by U of L fans, it was an 80-68 overtime victory that was symbolic. U of L had existed without the advantages in state funding that UK has enjoyed throughout its history. It lacked the tradition that UK built. So beating Kentucky meant something to the school. It sent a message. Still, despite fashioning one of the best records in college basketball from 1980 to '86, including four Final Fours and two NCAA championships, U of L remained on the outside of the college sports establishment. Crum never even was voted national coach of the year.
Through his leadership and the Freedom Hall era, basketball thrived. Football, however, needed attention. The program would rise under Lee Corso, then ebb until it nearly went away in the early 1980s, with trustees discussing going to a non-scholarship program.
Athletic director Bill Olsen stepped in to save football, and then stepped up to hire Howard Schnellenberger as football coach. Schenellenberger was brash enough to talk about national championships, and led the Cardinals to a Fiesta Bowl victory to show them what was possible.
He also talked about a new stadium.
Unlike the big land-grand universities around the nation whose facilities were built with state funds as part of the educational mission of sports, U of L largely self-funded the construction of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
In women's sports, pioneers like Sherrill Brakmeier not only were hustling to find women to compete in field hockey, but she drove them to games in her station wagon. An annual rite of fall was Brakmeier prevailing upon the physical plant workers to scout out a good location for that season's field hockey field on campus. Today, when she visits the locker room of U of L's field hockey facility, it bears her name.
Today, there are some who say U of L has grown too big, that it takes up too large a part of Louisville's corporate development. Yet over its history, U of L has had to fight for what it has gotten. For the majority of its history, it was basically a private school, receiving some city funding but outside the state university system, which it finally joined in 1970.
Over the years, U of L has bounced from one conference to the next. Missouri Valley to Metro to Conference USA. It reached the Big East in 2006, but the warning signs of a new break-up were already on the horizon.
The ACC will be U of L's third conference in three years. But it will be the program's last stop for a while.
"We've had uncertainty," U of L president James Ramsey said in a recent interview with WDRB. "We've had to work hard to get from Conference USA and no TV money to the Big East and, we thought that was nirvana, and all of a sudden it starts moving. But if we hadn't gotten into one of the big five conferences now, we were dead. Especially with all the autonomy talk."
In the ACC, U of L joins such institutions as Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Boston College and others.
"We're not an ACC school academically yet, but we've had a plan, and we're moving toward it," Ramsey said. "We've got targets for the year 2020. ... We know we're not where we want to be. But we're trying to move in that direction, and that's what our focus is. I enjoy athletics, and I'm a big athletics fan. And I'm fortunate to have Tom Jurich. I wish I could say I hired him. But he's committed to athletics success and he's committed to doing it the right way. He's been committed to gender equity and financial stability, things I've learned are important. We are going to try to use that success and the associations we make in the ACC to move our university forward." From 1987 to 1990, I worked summers as a student at U of L, giving tours to incoming freshmen on campus. It didn't take long. Beyond the Speed Scientific School on Eastern Parkway, there was nothing. Past Floyd Street on the East side of campus, there was nothing. Beyond Fourth Street on the West side of campus, there was nothing.
Today, of course, that's all very different. On the South side of campus there is the Yum! Center basketball practice facility, a lacrosse stadium, Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and the team practice facility, the soon-to-be completed Mark and Cindy Lynn Soccer Stadium and Jim Patterson Stadium.
East of Floyd Street, where once there was a gravel parking lot and a convenience store, there is the Cardinal Park complex, the Bass-Rudd Tennis Center, and along Floyd Street are the Student Activities Center, and the Ralph Wright Natatorium. I used to take incoming freshman past Crawford Gym and tell them it was named after me. It's hard to believe that building was the only practice facility U of L had through two national championships, and it double as the school's pool. Over on the West side of campus, there's Minardi Hall and other new dormitories, plus a student recreation center.
More than at other schools, athletic building has sparked campus renewal at U of L. And now, with its new conference affiliation, U of L's athletic program has placed the university in a swanky new academic neighborhood.
Looking at the U of L athletic department today, with Rick Pitino leading the nation's most profitable basketball program thanks to playing in the downtown KFC Yum! Center, with a football stadium which seats better than 55,000 with drafts for another expansion already on the athletic director's desk, with a women's basketball program third in the nation in attendance and a year removed from playing in its second NCAA championship game and a baseball program just off its third College World Series trip, it's hard to believe how far the program has come.
But on this day of celebration for U of L, it's important to remember just that.
Copyright 2014 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved. For more on U of L's sports history, see "Louisville Cardinal Football," by Jim Bolus and Billy Reed and "Top of the Cards: A Look Back at 10 University of Louisville Basketball Teams," by Mike Smith. Both books were used in putting together this article.