CRAWFORD | An open letter to Louisville basketball fans - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | An open letter to Louisville basketball fans

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford WDRB photo by Eric Crawford

NOTE: Over the course of the past several days, I've heard the statement that this person or that person made Louisville basketball what it is today. Discounting the fact that today, Louisville basketball is a program in chaos, I wanted to take a moment to talk about what truly has made Louisville's program thrive, while other city schools' programs have faltered, over the past decades.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Back in 1945, with the University of Louisville Sea Cards, as they were then known because coach Peck Hickman was drawing players from the Navy’s V-12 training program, starting to catch on with the public, the Louisville coach and athletic director wanted to play their big season finale against Western Kentucky in the Louisville Armory downtown.

There was a problem. The rent was too high. U of L president Elinar Jacobson would give them only two-thirds of the cost. With an annual basketball budget of only $3,000, Hickman and AD John Heldman had to dig into their own pockets for the remaining $250.

They hoped a crowd would show up to make the program its money back. They needn’t have worried. The building was packed, 6,000 people, with an overflow crowd watching in Belknap Gym on a large television screen. On the same date, a decade earlier, Louisville had drawn 350 fans to that same Belknap gym while Jeffersonville and New Albany drew 7,000 fans at a game across the river.

When Louisville built its new Fair & Exposition Center, Hickman at first said there was no need for Louisville to move its games into cavernous Freedom Hall, at that point the largest basketball facility in the nation. Then he took his team there for a few games, and saw 13,756 in the stands for a game against Notre Dame, and 15,400 when Saint Louis visited.

Louisville basketball has always been a good bet -- not just because of its leadership or even its coaches, but because of its fans. DePaul, Houston, Marquette, Memphis, all all of the great city teams declined and fell at some point. Louisville thrived. What made it different? It has everything to do with the people who have put Louisville in the top six in the nation in attendance for 36 straight years.

This is what University of Louisville fans need to remember, after a week in which they have lost a coach who was the program’s brand for 16 years, and perhaps an athletic director who has led the largest expansion of any kind in university history and delivered the program from the backwater conferences of college sports to the high-rent district.

As important as those men have been, they are not the program. It did not belong to them, any more than it belonged to Denny Crum or Hickman or Bill Olsen.

It belongs to you.

Tom Jurich had a particular talent for matching passion with projects in this city. His drive and vision pushed a constant stream of expansion. But at the heart of every one of those projects were fans who wanted to leave a difference. Jurich activated the talents and gifts of people in this city, but he didn’t create them. They were here. They always have been. They still are.

Jim Patterson played baseball at U of L, served in the Air Force, and returned to town to open a restaurant, then another. He wound up starting a chain of restaurants called Rally’s, and another called Long John Silver’s. What he gave back is a stadium where Louisville’s nationally ranked baseball team plays.

Dan Ulmer, a classmate of Patterson’s, was a face in those Freedom Hall crowds. He helped bring Minor League baseball back to Louisville, but that wasn’t enough. He and his wife Helen wanted to do something for women’s sports in this city. They gave the lead gift for a softball stadium, and have given much more to the university.

The Bernard Trager family has its name on several facilities on Floyd Street. Dr. Mark Lynn. Owsley Brown Frazier. And many others whose names aren’t on buildings, but whose heart was in supporting teams there.

It wasn’t the state that got the ball rolling on Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. It was a bunch of Louisville fans who paid for lifetime seat rights.

Yes, Jurich made the calls. But Louisville fans answered, again and again. And they will keep doing so, disheartened as they are. 

Basketball has always been the first love of the Louisville fan base.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about the “death penalty” where Louisville basketball is concerned. You can’t kill something when its life doesn’t derive from playing games, but from a connection between an institution and a program and its fan base.

On Saturday, when they introduced the Cardinals’ basketball team to a football crowd in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, it got a large ovation, which was predictable.

But more than that, when fans noticed the players get out of their seats to head down to the field, they stood and cheered. And that cheer spread to the next section, and the next. No one even had to introduce them.

I don’t doubt, when the team plays its first scrimmage a week from Friday, Louisville fans will send a message. Sometimes, being a fan is about showing up and being entertained. In times like this, it becomes about showing up to remind people who the program belongs to.

In 1970, Denny Crum had a job offer from Virginia Tech University, but he’d also gotten an offer from Louisville.

The Louisville offer was for less money, and he couldn’t get them to come up. He took it anyway, because he saw something in the city and its people, and he saw something in the university. He thought the whole thing had potential.

He was right.

Now, the university is falling on hard times of its own, and not just because of its basketball misdeeds.

So much has changed at U of L in recent years. The mandate to become a more prominent regional research institution has made it a far different school from the one I arrived to in 1986. In those days, truthfully, U of L took a lot of kids from the city of Louisville, and from around the state, who probably weren’t “college material.” I know. I spent several summers on orientation staff giving placement tests to kids who hadn’t gotten the math background they needed for college, or the background in other subjects, either.

But U of L took them, because it was an urban institution, and that’s what urban institutions do. The blue-blood state land-grant colleges look down their noses at you, because your average freshman ACT isn’t gaudy and you don’t look good on paper. You lose some of those high-risk students, of course. But you don’t lose them all. And even the ones you lose don’t go away empty handed. They go away with a college experience, no matter how brief or successful. They go away with a connection to the school.

And even more than that, they grow up with the hope that they’ll make it to the school, and get a shot at doing something better. (It’s why institutions like Simmons College have become more important, because U of L has pivoted to a different student clientele.)

I wonder, honestly, a lot of times, how much U of L moving to improve its academic profile (which, in the end, just means taking better students who are safer bets) has been a contributor to some of the violence and turmoil in our city. Certainly, the failure of educational institutions at all levels is a part of that story.

I’m going into this because a lot of us don’t recognize the place today, and not just because a lot of the sources we used to call for stories have been sent packing. The board of trustees, appointed by the governor after the old board was disbanded, has more undergraduate degrees (among those gubernatorial appointments) from Centre (3) than U of L (2). David Grissom, a U of L law school grad who was chairman of the Centre board of trustees for 17 years seems like a no-nonsense guy, bent on excising the corruption on campus. Greg Postel, interim president, has not shied away from difficult calls.

But over the past month, just as many highly public decisions have resulted in negative news about the university as positive. And some, the cutting of $60,000 for the school newspaper for instance, left me wondering if somebody didn’t want a bad news story making the rounds. At the very least, it might've been a good time to have Denny Crum and Darrell Griffith on the payroll to ease public angst and keep community relations positive.

It’s going to be tough to extract good news out of this situation. I expect it to get dirtier before it gets better. It can’t be long until lawsuits start flying.

A move is under way to pressure the board to retain Jurich as athletic director. The board might be inclined to cut that move off before it grows louder.

Patterson, in a letter to Postel and Matt Bevin, said, “We are flying at 40,000 feet . . . does it make sense to shut the engines off?” He says that the program is in the ACC because of Jurich, graduates 83 percent of its athletes because of Jurich, and has one of the more enviable records of improving women’s sports in the nation because of Jurich. Particularly in the case of the ACC, but in all of those, Patterson is right.

But if you're going to count the good, you must also count the bad. Despite all the good that has happened, most would not describe Louisville's athletic program right now as flying high.

It also has had, in the past five years under Jurich’s watch, a major NCAA violation with strippers and prostitutes in the men’s basketball dorm, a case in which the football staff received game plan information from an opponent without disclosing it, questions about finances and the department’s cozy relationship with the university foundation, not to mention a major scandal involving a shoe company that he celebrated a new contract with just a month ago.

A lot of these questions facing the board are serious with far-reaching implications. I don’t know what the board will do.

I do know what the fans will do. They will support their players. They will make it more of a point to show up now than they did when times were better. They were there before Hall of Fame coaches. They will be there after.

Regardless of who is in charge, this university and program belong to the people in this community. They are bigger than any one man, or any two. It’s easy to forget that. None of us should.

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