CRAWFORD | Tyra takes over Louisville athletics, but the Jurich question looms large
Eric Crawford writes about the challenge awaiting Vince Tyra as acting athletic director of the University of Louisville.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Since April, Vince Tyra has been slogging through the investments and financials of the University of Louisville Foundation and trying to make sense of the tangled web of intrigue that has left that body weakened and listing.
Turns out, the school’s endowment isn’t worth as much as it was billed to have been worth.
On Tuesday, Tyra was placed in charge of perhaps the school’s highest-value asset from a public relations standpoint. He became acting director of athletics.
And you don’t need me to tell you, the value of that brand has taken a beating over the past three years – despite all the good things that have happened.
Today, the brand of U of L athletics, and in some ways of the university itself, is strippers and prostitutes and now a federal investigation. Soon, you might be able to add legal circus to the logo.
It’s not fair for everyone else in the athletic department, and it isn’t fair for the students, faculty, staff and alumni of the university. It wasn’t fair for Lamar Jackson when he won the Heisman Trophy. It wasn’t fair for the swim program and Arthur Albiero. It wasn’t fair for Dan McDonnell’s baseball team. It isn’t fair for the attorneys or doctors who have to take down the U of L degrees hanging in their offices because they don't want to hear the ridicule.
And the position the university has asked Tyra to fill, certainly, isn’t fair, for a variety of reasons, but chief among which is the guy for whom he is stepping in.
“Why,” so many people have asked me, “do they call it an ‘acting’ director instead of ‘interim’ director?”
The reason is that U of L still has an athletic director; he just has been placed on administrative leave. His name is Tom Jurich, and his presence was palpable in Bigelow Hall on the Louisville campus, where Tyra met the media after being installed in Jurich’s position.
Jurich, in fact, was still the biggest presence in the room, even if he wasn’t there. And that’s a problem. His son, Mark, was in the crowd. It’s a tough situation for him, because Vince Tyra has been a mentor and great friend. Tyra and Tom Juirch are friends, and Tyra didn’t try to downplay that.
“His legacy is all around us,” Tyra said.
After meeting with reporters, Tyra had a brief meeting with coaches of every sport at the school. Everyone in the room had been hired by Tom Jurich. When Tyra meets with the athletic department staff, almost everyone will have that same thing in common.
What to do about Jurich is the $100 million question for university leadership.
Soccer coach Ken Lolla explained it this way: “People have talked about cleaning house. I think our house is in pretty good shape. It’s not needing condemning. It’s one room that needs a little tidying up. I think the rest of the rooms are in pretty good shape, in a place where you’re very proud to bring people in and saying, ‘This is what we’re about.’”
Lolla is a smart man. His opinions matter in this regard. When Rick Bozich and I first sat down to ponder this monumental question of who could lead U of L athletics in this time of crisis, Lolla, baseball coach Dan McDonnell and swimming and diving coach Arthur Albiero were the first people that came to my mind, and it had nothing to do with winning or business acumen, and everything to do with an unflinching adherence to doing things the right way.
Those guys are the genuine article, and there are other coaches at U of L who are cut from the same cloth. A great many.
So Lolla’s words have validity. Jurich, like him or not, didn’t just leverage community and university resources to build a bunch of facilities, he has built a program with great coaches, and a department full of capable and talented people.
But here’s where I would differ slightly from Lolla’s comments. The men’s basketball room in the U of L athletic house is not in need of “a little tidying up.”
The men’s basketball room is on fire. The program is in danger of burning down, and making an inferno of the whole enterprise. If men’s basketball were to get the so-called “death penalty,” every sport at that university would suffer.
The university is feverishly trying to construct a firewall against that, to contain the blaze. That’s why basketball coach Rick Pitino is in Florida and David Padgett is getting ready to update the media on his team’s progress Wednesday afternoon.
The problem, then, is not that Jurich let the Louisville basketball program -- one of the two largest rooms in the house, one of the rooms with all the money in it, one of the front rooms that everyone sees from the road – get a little messy. He let it catch fire.
Moreover, there may be another room that needs some tidying up. Unlike others, I don’t believe the questions over money being spent by the U of L Foundation on athletics to be some kind of wildfire. In my mind, if the foundation thinks the university needs a golf course, it’s the logical body to advance the money for one, if athletics can pay it back. Or even if it can’t, for that matter.
Questions about Jurich’s pay are another story, and that’s something trustees will have to sort through.
But the guy was given free rein to do whatever he wanted in athletics for 20 years. If he didn’t stop over the final six months when leadership changed, what do they want him to do? Greg Postel told Jurich in a letter placing him on leave that he didn’t negotiate the 10-year, $160 million athletic department adidas deal with appropriate communication with the president or board of trustees. So what’s he want Jurich to do? Give the money back?
Everybody’s asking: “What will you do about the contract? What will you do about adidas?” I’ve read the adidas contract amendment. It’s 11 pages. It doesn’t take long. Spoiler alert: There’s nothing in there about paying basketball recruits. As with so many deals at the university these days, the problems aren’t with what’s on paper, but with what isn’t.
It may all be moot because of what has happened with adidas and men’s basketball, and that’s why Jurich is sitting in Florida wondering about his future and Tyra is on Floyd Street trying to sort things out.
I believe this: Tyra is uniquely qualified to carry out the task to which he has been assigned. He has the business experience – and experience with the Foundation finances – to know what he’s looking at (and to see what’s missing) and determine if things are in order. He appears to be willing to call it like he sees it, and he has the advantage of being able to look at it from the university perspective as well as an athletic perspective.
If U of L looks at all this and determines that it wants to stick with Jurich, and if Jurich is satisfied to return (most likely) with a far more restrictive set of rules in place and perhaps the loss of his vice president’s title, Tyra has a positive enough relationship that he’ll be satisfied to turn the keys back over.
But if that reconciliation doesn’t happen, Tyra is more than qualified to lead U of L through this difficult time.
I’m weary of fans acting as if there’s only one person who can run the show. I like Jurich. I respect the work he has done in Louisville. But none of us is irreplaceable. There are other athletic departments in the country, believe it or not, who win more than Louisville and who aren’t repeat NCAA violators, and who don’t do it on the backs of their students, who already are struggling financially. And they don’t do it through intimidation or fear, which seems to be a common thread of many on campus when I ask their opinion, on the record, of what’s happened with athletics.
It’s why I wrote that the program at U of L is bigger than any one person, or any two people.
I would only caution U of L leaders on the board of trustees and interim president Postel that, if they’re going to relieve Jurich of his duties, they present a clear and compelling case, and I’m not talking about in executive session behind closed doors.
I’ve seen these power struggles before. I saw one 17 years ago when Jurich wanted Denny Crum out as basketball coach. You had one side leaking stories to the media. The other would respond with its own leak. Pretty soon you had a fan base taking sides and a meeting in the night when some of the departments most important donors told Jurich he had their support, and from then it was done. But there are still hard feelings over that today.
If U of L has cause to relieve Jurich, it better produce it, or at the very least be extremely candid about why, specifically, the move is being made.
As for Tyra, he needs to stay out of that fight.
Some fans I heard from Tuesday don’t like that Tyra played baseball for Kentucky. Get me a power washer. I need to wipe Howard Schnellenberger’s name off the football complex if Kentucky graduates can’t be loyal U of L contributors. Mike Summers, offensive line coach for the Cardinals, has a graduate degree from UK. Is he out? The fact is, Jurich himself has befriended many UK personalities and fans over the years, and cultivated those friendships. This is not an issue of blue and red.
But if you want to examine the blue and red – Tyra grew up the son of a U of L basketball All-American, one of only four U of L players to have his number retired. He was raised to be a U of L fan. And he has raised his children to be Cardinal fans. He even said he declined to look at certain inside specifics of U of L’s basketball situation before he took the job because he didn’t want to react emotionally, like a fan.
Tyra will speak with ACC commissioner John Swofford. He’ll tap the expertise of many in his new profession. He’ll have the benefit of a talented staff.
But he deserves the good will and support of Louisville’s fan base. For starters, he is one of them.
“It’s been a difficult week, for sure,” Tyra said Tuesday. “It’s sad and disappointing. I’m a fan, just like you are. I’m passionate about the University of Louisville and passionate about sports. . . . While this is a difficult process in what we’re going through, this is a time for our fan base to dig in deeper and be more supportive, in any way they can, not just of the basketball program, but all of the 20 sports. We have a terrific set of athletic programs all across the board. One of them may have a flat tire right now, but we will pump it back up.”
Yes, the basketball tire may be flat, but it’s more than that. The tire has blown and the car has crashed into the mountain. A Hall of Fame coach has been deposed and is on the brink of suing the school. There’s a banner hanging in its arena that may be the first in NCAA history ever to be taken down for NCAA violations -- and there could be more on the way. There’s talent on the current roster, but absolutely no way to recruit for the future with so much uncertainty swirling.
Men’s basketball has put the entire athletic program of the school in jeopardy. Fans fear coaches leaving if Jurich doesn’t stay. They might want to consider if he stays they could be at greater risk of the NCAA’s most severe sanction, and the loss of that revenue ($40-plus million annually for basketball) would mean less for coaches salaries, resources to run programs and more. Even if Jurich returns, coaches are a flight risk. There are no guarantees of anything, no matter who is, or isn’t, in the athletic director’s chair.
How can Vince Tyra fit into all this?
If you look at the basketball record books of U of L, you’ll find his last name all over the records for rebounding. Nobody in U of L history was a more ferocious rebounder than Charlie Tyra. Nobody, not the great Wes Unseld, not Pervis Ellison, had more rebounds in a season, nor in a game, than Tyra. Nobody averaged more rebounds in a season.
Some of those records, 22.2 rebounds a game in 1955-56, or 1,617 in a career, will never be broken.
But it’s fair to say this, given the mess that men’s basketball is in, and the work needed to bring it back and to stabilize Louisville’s athletics department: If Vince Tyra can assess the damage, put out the fire and salvage this wreckage, he’ll have pulled off a rebounding feat of a magnitude that even his dad could appreciate.
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