LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – These days, getting a clear picture of anything at the University of Louisville is difficult, because it’s hard to see through the smoke of the basketball program, in the words of Rick Pitino’s attorney Steve Pence, “burning to the ground.”

Perhaps nowhere is it more difficult to get a fair assessment than with athletic director Tom Jurich, who sits on paid administrative leave while his allies argue for him to be reinstated and his opponents pile up ammunition to cut him loose. An evaluation of his performance is scheduled for a board of trustees meeting on Oct. 18.

If you are into counting votes, you know that his prospects have never been great. But Jurich presents a complicated picture, and his legacy at the university is far larger even than his substantial contracts, outlined last week in a series of stories by The Courier-Journal.

The story on Jurich, in particular, focused on the financial benefits and perks of his contract in great detail, with another focusing on how the athletic department doesn’t turn a profit. But when it came to discussing the value of the work Jurich has done for the university, there was little detail. That will be my goal here. To provide some perspective, looking at the pros and cons of the Jurich record.

“I don’t get this love affair with Tom Jurich,” C-J columnist Joe Gerth wrote in the newspaper. Most Kentucky fans would agree. But I’m surprised any journalist in this city would admit to it. To not agree with it is one thing. To not "get" it is another.

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” Phil Graham, longtime editor of The Washington Post, once said. Still, you can’t tell the story of the Civil War without spending a little time on Gettysburg, or World War II without D-Day. To tell the full story of Jurich, you need to dig deeper than dollars, and in fact, you need to widen your view, and consider what might have happened at U of L if not for the determined and largely solitary work Jurich did to achieve what once was unthinkable – to gain U of L admittance into the Atlantic Coast Conference.

This story is an attempt to explain that love affair – agree with it or not -- and set into perspective his accomplishments, and shortcomings. 

I undertake this as someone who, until a phone conversation with Jurich last week, probably hadn’t spoken one-on-one with the athletic director in a couple of years. Like many in the media, my contact with Jurich ran hot and cold.

I don’t think he cared for a story I wrote about foundation spending on the athletic department. I had always had a positive relationship with Jurich until I started criticizing football coach Steve Kragthorpe. When Kragthorpe fired Jeff Brohm, I wrote a column listing people who were being blamed for football struggles. I was told the column made Jurich so angry that it ruined his vacation. I don’t know if that’s true. I never asked him. I do know that Rick Pitino was dispatched to talk to me. We met at a Starbucks near campus. “They think you have something against the department,” he said. No, I just thought it was weak to fire Brohm. Jurich and I didn’t talk for about eight months, until a Q&A we did at the end of Kragthorpe’s tenure.

I only relate this to say that I write this as neither a friend or enemy of Jurich. But I have had a front-row seat to much of his time at U of L.

This also is an opinion piece. It presents a good many facts and figures. But in the end, it also reflects my opinion on the interpretation of these figures, and on events as they are unfolding at the university. And while a good portion of this discussion gets into the money issues raised in recent reporting, it all must be viewed from the perspective of what recent scandals have cost the university, a point taken up here at the end.

So let’s get down to it. Financial information here is from the same USA Today college sports financial database used by The C-J in its reports.

What is Jurich’s U of L legacy? In brief, he has had more influence on the physical transformation of U of L’s Belknap Campus than any figure in the university’s modern history. Period.

U of L’s athletic facilities boom, which began with Cardinal Park after Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium was up and running, and continued with new or renovated facilities for every sport in the department, paved the way for a larger campus population at U of L, which paved the way for commercial development around the campus.

It was Jurich who got Owsley Brown Frazier, Jim Patterson, Dan Ulmer, the Trager Family, Mark Lynn, Thornton’s and many others to back major building projects. Did the university lay out money for those? Sometimes, yes. Did it spur further growth on the campus, including on the academic side? Absolutely.

Was it worth it? It certainly was on the day when the ACC made its decision on which school to add. Ask Connecticut if that investment was worth it. More on UConn in a bit.

When they say athletics enhance a university, don’t listen. There’s no data to back that up. But you don’t need data in terms of the physical transformation at U of L.

Whatever happens to Jurich in the coming weeks, that’s what he did at U of L. That’s a lasting legacy. Without Jurich, U of L’s Belknap Campus wouldn’t look like it does today. And he did more than build facilities, he built a department, added women's sports, and academic supports for the students who played the games.

So why is that important?

That brings us to the second part of Jurich’s legacy at U of L: The Atlantic Coast Conference. Why has there been a love affair with Jurich? Because he got the university’s athletic program onto the last lifeboat in college sports.

When Maryland and Rutgers joined the Big Ten, Connecticut was the presumed choice for the ACC. Jurich had about 11 days to change that presumption. And he did it virtually by himself, locked away for long stretches at a time. He accomplished it based on his body of work at U of L -- all those facilities, improved academic performance within the athletic department, and athletic achievement, Final Fours in men’s and women’s basketball, the College World Series, a team in the men’s soccer title game.

For all the of talk of finances in the past few days. I’ve heard zero talk about one of the biggest sets of numbers that casts perspective on U of L’s inclusion into the ACC: the cost of not getting in.

Yes, it’s correct, U of L spent $7.4 million in university or foundation funds and student fees on athletics last season. Given its revenue and the university’s financial struggles, it’s reasonable to think that it shouldn’t have spent any. Jurich has been obstinate in not giving the student athletic fee – roughly $2 million per year – back to the university, despite students calling for a roll-back of that fee for years, especially since U of L joined the ACC. Nor should U of L athletics need the university to pay its electric bill, even though that was business as usual for decades in college sports.

But let’s go back to 2012. U of L and UConn were vying for ACC membership. That year, U of L spent $8.9 million of university money on athletics, and UConn spent $8.1 million. Then fast-forward to 2016, with U of L in the ACC and UConn where U of L would have been, in the American Athletic Conference -- U of L spent $5.4 million in university money on athletics. UConn spent $27 million.

When judging Jurich’s performance and the money spent by the university, as well as the money spent on Jurich, this cost of being left on the outside looking in of the college sports major conference power structure is a key consideration.

In fact, in its first two years of play in the ACC, U of L has spent $10.6 million in university money on athletics (and another $4 million in student fees) – and yes, that’s too much.

But in the same time, UConn, after losing to U of L in the ACC sweepstakes, has spent $44.9 million in university money on athletics – plus $18.5 million in student fees. That’s worse than too much. It’s unsustainable.

Cincinnati, another urban institution that got left on the outside looking in, spent $25 million in university money on athletics in 2016, and spent $48 million in a two-year span -- and is carrying $140 million in athletic debt.

U of L could have been UConn. It could have been Cincinnati.

Go on down the line with U of L’s brethren who remain in the American Athletic Conference:

  • Houston spent $36.3 million in university money and $15 million in student fees on athletics in 2015 and ‘16
  • Memphis, $21.5 million in university money and $15 million in student fees
  • South Florida, only $11.4 million in university money but $33.8 million in student fees. A student taking 15 credit hours at USF will pay $227 per semester in athletic fees.

The costs for those institutions that didn’t ramp up and make a successful run at a major conference have been staggering. At UConn, university money and student fees have more than doubled since Jurich’s ACC work in 2012, and have gone from providing 27 percent of the athletic budget to 44.5 percent. At Cincinnati, the university and student burden has risen by $8.4 million and gone from providing 33 percent of the athletic revenue to 41 percent.

At U of L, in the same time, the university and student burden has decreased by more than $3 million and its percentage of the athletic revenue has decreased from 12.2 percent to 6.6 percent.

Still, the examination in question in the Louisville media last week didn’t compare Louisville to those similar urban institutions who failed to make the leap U of L made, but compared Louisville to its relatively new neighbors in the Top 25 of schools in national revenue.

Against those, U of L doesn’t fare as well. It takes more net money from university subsidy and student fees than any of them. But only 13 are truly self-supporting, taking no net money from the university or student fees. One school the newspaper held out as self-supporting, Florida State, actually had $2 million more in expenses than revenue in 2016 and kept $7.3 million in university money and student fees, according to the USA Today figures.

Moreover, U of L, when compared to the eight other public institutions in its new league, ranks near the middle of the pack in these measurements. The percentage of athletic burden carried by U of L and its students is the third-smallest among those schools, and the total dollar amount ranks fourth among the eight public schools. North Carolina supports athletics with $9.1 million in university money and student fees -- amid shrinking state appropriations and layoffs, as well as a national scandal -- and Virginia with $13.7 million from a $657-per-semester athletic fee.

Moreover, the issue of university spending on athletics is a national problem. It occurs everywhere, including in this state, where WKU spends more than double the university money that U of L does – $16.4 million, 55 percent of its athletic revenue. At Eastern Kentucky, the total is $12.8 million, nearly 74 percent of the school’s athletic revenue. At Northern Kentucky, it’s 11.6 million – 89 percent of the athletic revenue comes from university money and student fees.

This isn't to excuse the situation at U of L. Especially for Power 5 conference teams who are making big revenue, it’s wrong. Athletic departments making that much money should be able to suck it up and pay their own bills.

Clearly, U of L is spending more than other top programs. But against the backdrop of Cincinnati, which has spent $97 million of university money on athletics the last four years, or Connecticut, which has spent $109.4 million in university money and student fees, or Houston’s $99 million, or South Florida’s $84 million, or Memphis’ $74.8 million, or Central Florida’s $97.3 million (or North Carolina’s 36.4 million and Virginia’s $53.6 million), Louisville’s $33.2 million doesn’t quite pack the same punch.

Now some might say, and I would agree, Louisville is not UConn. It is not Cincinnati. It might not have suffered the financial blow that those schools did had it been left out of conference realignment.

It’s worth examining why that is the case. U of L’s athletic revenue grew to $77 million (even if you subtract student fees and university subsidy) even before it reached a major conference because Jurich navigated it into that position.

Nobody would be comparing U of L to the other Top 24 revenue programs in the nation had Jurich not gotten the department to that point, largely through suite revenue at the KFC Yum! Center and suite revenue from a new seating section at the football stadium. Of course, many people blame Jurich for the financial predicament that the arena is in. The fact is, Jurich did what he was supposed to do. He advocated for the university. If you’re going to blame him for a one-sided deal where the city is concerned, he has to get credit for the deal on behalf of his own department and university.

So, if all of this is true, then why does Jurich find himself under fire? There are legitimate reasons.

One of Jurich’s problems is that he didn’t pivot when U of L entered the ACC. Athletics needed to, at that point, worry less about its own expansion and more about its own image. It should’ve given up the student athletic fee. It should’ve weaned itself of dependence on university money – even though university leadership itself could’ve stopped the flow of money to athletics at any time, and could easily have abolished the student athletic fee (in 2017, Lousiville returned the rough equivalent of the fee, $2 million, back to the university). It should’ve willingly and quickly kicked a portion of the KFC Yum! Center money back to the arena authority instead of doing it kicking and screaming (it might have done this, had there not been such a rush to blame the problem on Jurich – who wanted a Fairgrounds arena instead of a downtown arena to begin with).

None of those pivots was made. In fact, athletics appeared to become more petty and insulated, even as it continued to receive university and student money. A certain tone-deafness began to be on display on Floyd Street, amid the perception that the department could do whatever it wanted.

Which brings us to Jurich’s salary. All. That. Money. Admirably, the newspaper was able to dig through the stack of Jurich contracts and addendums and letters to determine that over the past seven years Jurich was paid about $19.3 million, or $2.76 million per year.

The biggest chunk came this year, when an annuity was paid to him that made this year’s salary $5.3 million, a number that raised everyone’s eyebrows, especially when the newspaper drew the comparison that it was more than “four academic departments.” But of that large total, $3.4 million was part of an annuity that went into Jurich’s contract in 2004 and was earned over 12 years. He got the payout in 2016, but it was a long time coming. To compare Jurich’s 2016 income to a single year’s spending on academic departments when more than half of it was earned over the course of a dozen years is a neat piece of showmanship, but not the most straightforward presentation.

Now, let’s do an exercise. If you had gone to UConn in 2010 and told them, Jurich will be your athletic director for $20 million over the next seven years, and get you into the ACC, do you think they’d have taken the deal?

Calcuators out. Do you spend $20 million on this athletic director, or fork over a cumulative total of $50 million in additional university money (above the amount they were spending on athletics in 2010) after building new facilities in hope of a payday that isn’t coming?

What about Cincinnati? Do you think, in retrospect, they’d have taken the deal to give Jurich $20 million in exchange for the ACC and its peer institutions and its future, or would they have passed on that $2.76 million a year and gone ahead and paid a cumulative $47.4 million above what they were contributing to athletics in 2010, which is what has happened?

U of L, of course, did fork out $19.2 million to Jurich. And since 2010, the university has paid a cumulative $2.8 million above its 2010 spending level on athletics. Ideally, that number would be negative. With more growth in the ACC and more revenue from football, it might be. Regardless, you add that $2.8 to the $19.2 and it’s still likely quite a bit less than the additional spending from university sources U of L would be doing on athletics were it not in the ACC, and had it not positioned itself as Jurich did to be a part of the “power” conferences when the major conference music stopped playing.

Still, that doesn’t make some of the perks in Jurich’s contract easy to swallow. Jurich’s various agreements, reported by the newspaper, also include items like a CEO in private industry would get, not a public employee. Multiple country club memberships and car allowances. Overpayment of life insurance for tax purposes. Amounts to pay taxes on an annuity and other payments. Kentucky Derby and Oaks suite, basketball tickets for family for life. These are the kinds of things that catch peoples’ eyes, and that foster resentment. If you’re making $2.7 million a year, why can’t you buy your own suite?

Here’s one reason. You use the Derby and Oaks tickets to make money. That’s where you entertain donors. Jurich’s suite for football and basketball games is full of a mix of big money individuals, friends of the program and former athletes. It’s about more than having a party. It’s about landing donations. The same for the country club memberships. Jurich is on the golf course, because people with money are on the golf course.

It doesn’t excuse all the perks. Certainly not all the tax-related top-ups. Many of those perks are excessive, especially in the university’s current financial climate. But are they reason to terminate someone?

Of more concern is the under-the-table nature of some of the deals between the foundation and athletics, and the role in the foundation in paying the buyouts or severance deals of former coaches and some athletics salaries.

Still, while there may well be, in my view, good reason for U of L and Jurich to part ways, money probably isn’t the biggest one.

What U of L invested in Jurich, it got back, many times over. The accomplishments on the field have been well-documented. Two BCS bowl wins. Two NCAA title games in women’s basketball and one in men’s soccer. Four trips to the College World Series. Then there’s the enhanced academic performance within the department. Not to mention the neighborhood it puts U of L into with its conference affiliation.

Yes, Jurich is the highest paid athletic director in the nation. He’s also the only one in the Top 25 revenue programs to take over a program that had a budget of less than $30 million, no major conference affiliation, basketball probation, a one-win football team, a Title IX problem waiting to happen, few adequate facilities and a basketball program on probation and facing major NCAA sanctions.

Today, every area in that list has been transformed, except the last. The men’s basketball program is on probation again, and again faces NCAA sanctions.

In the end, scandal is a problem.

Suppose we asked the earlier-referenced question of UConn and Cincinnati in 2010, and told them they could be in the ACC for $20 million, but told them they’d also have to endure multiple scandals, including multiple major violations in men’s basketball, and the potential vacating of a national championship. Now, what do you think the answer would be? I think they’d have run for the hills. No thanks.

This is where U of L’s leadership stands today. And beyond those scandals that occurred under Jurich, there’s speculation born of his close involvement with former president James Ramsey, and athletics with the foundation. And there’s the hiring of his son in athletics. And his daughter working for adidas, which has a business relationship with the athletic department. I’m a little sensitive to the topic of nepotism. It’s been flung at me my whole life. All I can tell people is that if my position is due to my name, I wish it had come a little faster. I was turned down on three Courier-Journal interviews before I started, and was passed over for the columnist job the first time I tried for it. At any rate, I’m not going to assume Mark and Haley Jurich are not good at their jobs just because their dad is athletic director. You’re welcome to do differently, and you’re welcome to push for the nepotism policy at U of L to be strengthened. 

Regardless, we don’t know what all has gone on behind the scenes from a compensation standpoint. We do know that things have gone on behind the scenes. And that looks bad. John Schnatter talked about accountability. He knows his way around a balance sheet.

Moreover, university leaders, it appears, already have decided they want to go a different direction and in fact may well have decided that even before the recent basketball scandal hit. They placed Jurich on leave, then hired Vince Tyra in his place.

If I’m Jurich, I have no desire to work with an administration that doesn’t support my efforts. And if I’m the administration, I look around at the nearly non-stop negative publicity from basketball, the tone-deaf response to the Wake Forest game-plan incident, all of the animosity surrounding the arena project, resentment from within the university surrounding his pay and university spending on the athletics department, and the potential jeopardy you put your athletic program in by retaining the leadership in place when a second straight major violation occurred, and I begin to think that a new start is needed, despite all Jurich has built.

As I wrote earlier in the week, no one is indispensable.

The best way I can see for this to go, assuming the current university leadership is going to stay in control for a while, is for U of L to thank Jurich for his work, preserve his legacy as best they can, lift this suspension and negotiate a fitting (but fiscally responsible) settlement with him. And for Jurich? He can make more money as a collegiate coaching head-hunter or consultant than he ever made at U of L. And that’s saying something. Or he could land at another university. There are many out there who would be interested in his services.

But let’s not make any mistake. The next person in the job, and the administrators who hire the next person in the job, will not make the mark on Louisville’s campus that Jurich did. Their job, if administrators and trustees follow through on what looks like a plan to move Jurich out, is to take all of these facilities whose construction he oversaw and this conference affiliation he negotiated and this department that he built and make them work the way he made them work – minus money from the university, and the scandal which threatens to undo the whole enterprise.

Anything short of that, and they will be the next ones moved out.

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