CRAWFORD | Amid U of L difficulties, Ramsey and Jurich fight to push positive messages
University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich and president James Ramsey have spent much of their time on various scandals facing their respective departments, but both say there are positive stories they'd also like to see told.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Since first speaking about the sex-for-recruits allegations that rocked the University of Louisville basketball program last October, university president James Ramsey and athletic director Tom Jurich have shared relatively few thoughts.
But on Thursday, they spoke briefly with WDRB News about a common experience: Having positive messages to share being swallowed up by news of scandal.
Jurich cited NCAA rules that prohibit him from updating the progress of a joint school and NCAA inquiry into allegations made by former Louisville escort Katina Powell, namely that she was paid by then-director of basketball operations Andre McGee to provide escorts for U of L players and recruits from 2010 to 2014.
"There's a lot I'd like to say, but we can't talk about it at all," Jurich said. When asked about a timeline for the matter to wrap up, he said, "We don't have any idea at all. We're just trying to cooperate. We'd like to get it behind us, just like all of our fans would, like all of you would like us to, I wish we had more input into it, but we don't."
And because of that, the story the university would like to be putting front and center often gets crowded out. Scandals like the one facing the men's basketball team or upheaval of the kind Ramsey is dealing with often burn so hot that they consume everything else. It's a fire Jurich and Ramsey are fighting daily.
Last week, U of L was ranked No. 25 nationally in the NACDA final winter Director's Cup all-sports standings, despite getting no points for men's basketball, because it was banned from the postseason. The program continues a long-range turnaround academically. At one time, the U of L men's basketball program was featured on "60 Minutes" as an example of how schools were failing athletes. Last week, Louisville's men’s basketball, women's lacrosse and men's and women’s golf were among programs that received public recognition from the NCAA for being among the Top 10 in the nation for the past four years in the NCAA's Academic Progress Report.
For Jurich, whose program has had no substantive NCAA issue over the past 19 years, dealing with a scandal in men's basketball that is drawing national attention has been frustrating.
"You can't go about your business," Jurich said. ". . . I think the hardest part of this thing, at least for me personally, is nobody saw it coming. This is something we would have never imagined in my wildest dreams. But it happened. . . . We want to find the truth, we want to get to the truth, we want to fix it, we want to take our medicine and we want to move forward. But it has been frustrating. I can't sit here and tell you that everything's great. The thing that frustrates me the most is I've got 22 other sports that I don't want to see neglected, because they've all done great jobs. And, you know, there's so many great stories. Every year we have more stories than we had the last year that are great, and I want to see these young people get the accolades they deserve."
Ramsey has taken a good bit of heat from all sides. He has faced a vote of no confidence from university trustees. After he and Jurich imposed a postseason ban for the U of L basketball team, he in particular was harshly criticized in public, and in the media, both local and national. On Thursday, both men defended that decision.
"I think ultimately, when the investigation is done, people will say, 'Yeah, they did the right thing,'" Ramsey said. "We care deeply about this university and we're always going to try to do the right thing. We had access to information that people didn't have access to, and as we sat down in the investigative committee and looked at everything, we did what we thought was in the best interest of the University of Louisville."
"When the story broke, " Jurich said, ". . . we said as soon as we had facts that we could deal with, we would make a decision. We weren't going to try to hide behind anything. We were going to be open and honest. The unfortunate part for Dr. Ramsey and I is that we can't talk. Our hands are tied. Those aren't our rules. Because I think both of us will talk to you at any time you want. But we have to follow the rules of the NCAA. That's an organization we chose to be a part of, and we're going to follow their rules, and follow their rules diligently, because it's so important to us to be in that organization. It was a very, very difficult decision to make, but it was the right decision to make."
For Ramsey the tide of negative news has been difficult to manage. Having attended U of L in the 1980s, when the campus shut down on weekends and resident students largely fended for themselves, I suppose I have a different view on the kind of growth he has overseen.
The narrative Ramsey would like to be able to talk about is one in which he has helped to a transform a sleepy commuter school into a large, residential campus, with the addition of eight new residence halls, dining options, a state-of-the art student center, and $2.1 billion in campus development.
Just during his tenure, which began in 2002, the average freshman ACT score has risen from 23.2 to 25.5. The six-year graduation rate has grown from 33 percent to 52.9 percent. The number of bachelor's degrees awarded is up by nearly 1,000. Research spending has increased 359 percent, despite a more competitive pool and the loss of some federal funds.
When Ramsey arrived in 2002, the largest source of funds for U of L was the Kentucky taxpayer. Today, that is only the fifth-largest source of funds for U of L. If it wanted to become a private school, the trajectory it is on would not make that out of the question one day.
U of L has had more Fullbright Scholars over the past decade than every other school in the state combined.
Those are the things Ramsey, absent recent scandals, would be able to put into the spotlight. Instead, he has faced heavy criticism for funds embezzled or stolen from the school. Six times in the past eight years the university has been the victim of large sums of money stolen, $2.72 million in all. It has cost university insurers $2.15 million, and $541,000 has been paid in restitution. The actual dollar amount the school has lost, then, is less than $30,000, but the public relations cost is far heavier.
Ramsey also has been criticized for the salary he receives, for receiving a second salary through the U of L Foundation and for various bonuses and tax "gross ups" meant to limit his tax liability.
There was the sombrero scandal, for which he apologized but for which the university received a great deal of negative national attention. From the priorities he sets to the policies he enacts, there is a lot of room for debate and criticism.
But one thing that is difficult to argue, against the backdrop of the millions of dollars in university growth, is that he isn't worth a great deal of money to the university, not if you look at the dollars flowing into the university today versus when he arrived.
At times, Ramsey has reacted angrily to the criticism.
"Whatever noise is out in the community and whatever agendas people have, we have remained focused on recruiting the very best students and then giving them the best opportunity to be successful," Ramsey said. ". . . The APR news is dynamite; 13 Fullbright Scholars is dynamite. And there would be people in the media, in your business, who would try to convince you otherwise."
Of his own struggles with various groups, Ramsey only said Thursday, "It comes with the turf." He has declined in the past to discuss his own future at the school. But he insists that U of L is in a better position moving forward because of his leadership, and Jurich's, despite the public setbacks it has experienced in the past several years.
"I tell people, we're 6,000 employees, 24,000 students, we operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in multiple business lines, from clinical care to research to housing to food service to police and entertainment business, but also the education business," he said. "And in an organization like this, human beings make mistakes. And we've been criticized as a university because our approach to mistakes is to find the mistakes that are made, to make them public, we haven't swept anything -- and in this, we're not sweeping anything under the carpet, and then to prosecute those who have done wrong and put in place measures to try to protect ourselves going forward. In this case, we've got great coaches. I tell people, they're great coaches, but they're better people than they are coaches, but mistakes happen, things happen that you couldn't guard against, protect against, so, yeah, there's frustration, but you rely on your faith and your family and your friends and stay focused on what our job is."
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