BOZICH | Louisville board shows the name on front of jersey matters
The U of L board of trustees fired athletic director Tom Jurich Wednesday, two days after the school dismissed basketball coach Rick Pitino.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – You play for the name on the front of your jersey, not the one on the back.
I don’t remember the first person to deliver that marketing tap dance. John Wooden? Nick Saban? A sneaker guru to be named later?
It’s a pitch that has been dragged out relentlessly by coaches and administrators, including Rick Pitino and Tom Jurich at the University of Louisville. Those words rolled over and over on the KFC Yum! Center video board several years ago.
This week, the U of L athletics board and then the board of trustees demonstrated the concept applies to more than the players.
On Wednesday, two days after the athletics association ended Pitino’s 16-season stay as the Cardinals’ basketball coach, the 13-member board of trustees terminated Jurich’s thunderous 20-season stay as the athletics director.
Neither David Grissom, chairman of the board, nor board member John Schnatter nor other critics were willing to explain the 10-3 vote against Jurich, whose popularity surged as he led U of L to considerable success in football, basketball, baseball, women’s basketball and other sports.
Until somebody on the board corrects me, I’ll fill in the blanks: Too much scandal and dreadful publicity. Grissom is a no-nonsense guy respected for his intellect and principles.
For a hyper-charged segment of fans, this will register as an unpopular and risky move. I get that. Paying customers deserved more than an empty four-paragraph explanation from interim university president Dr. Greg Postel.
It was a courageous act with a less than courageous follow through. I’ll blame that on the lawyers – and expect more answers to be forthcoming.
But make a note the decision came at the conclusion of a board meeting that featured two faculty members that voiced their concerns about morale and state of the university as U of L searches for its next president with questions about the school’s accreditation. You know, the actual mission of education.
Even without saying anything beyond their votes, the board members essentially said this about the future of athletics:
It’s the University of Louisville, not the University of Pitino nor the University of Jurich.
The cult of the coach is what dragged the school to this spot – federal investigators looking into Pitino’s basketball program, which is already parked on NCAA probation.
Vince Tyra, the school’s interim athletic director, said he had mixed feelings about the decision to terminate Jurich.
Of course, he does. He said Jurich left him a stable of terrific coaches and athletes. Louisville’s facilities are the envy of many Division I schools. The Cardinals compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference, an address as prestigious as any in college sports. Jurich navigated U of L from Conference USA to the Big East to the ACC. His paycheck reflected that.
But Tyra also knows what others know about Louisville. This is a place that showed it had the athletic DNA to compete and win before Jurich arrived from Colorado State in 1997 or Pitino bounced back from being fired by the Celtics in 2001. I don’t expect that to disappear. Want to has not been an issue at Louisville.
Pitino and Jurich did not make Louisville a national basketball brand. Peck Hickman, Charlie Tyra, Wes Unseld, Butch Beard, Denny Crum and Darrell Griffith ignited that process.
Louisville basketball will likely face several ugly seasons as this situation shakes out. Recruiting won’t be easy. Finding a permanent coach will take serious work. But Louisville basketball will not go away.
This was a program that demonstrated its social conscience by integrating before that became the norm south of the Mason-Dixon Line. That could not have happened without the acceptance by the University of Louisville community. Remember that, too.
Ditto for Louisville football. Jurich expanded and upgraded Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. He did not build it. Howard Schnellenberger did. With help from Malcolm Chancey. And Bill Olsen. And Harry Jones. And Sam Rechter.
Jurich hired coaches that got Louisville to the Orange and Sugar Bowls. But Schnellenberger showed what was possible when his team beat Alabama in the 1990 Fiesta Bowl.
This is a place where fans purchased season tickets and a spot in the Brown & Williamson Club when it was nothing more than a blank space on a blueprint. Nobody sold a bigger dream than Schnellenberger. Louisville fans lined up and opened their wallets to invest in that dream. That matters.
That’s not to say that Jurich and Pitino failed to do good work. They did. Plenty of it. Pitino is a Hall of Famer. Jurich has been consistently considered one of the best in the business. I get that. History will make a note of it, too.
They were recognized for that work with victories and persistent praise. They were compensated for that work with salaries that reflected how greatly they were valued. They were written about and featured on television whenever they were deserving – and that was often.
But Pitino and Jurich were not infallible – and they aren’t irreplaceable. None of us are, a simple reality quickly forgotten in the swirl of conference championships, rivalry victories and recruiting scores.
The back-to-back-to-back Karen Sypher, Katina Powell and Play-for-Pay scandals involving Pitino’s program brought the university a string of national ridicule few coaches could survive.
It was time for a change in basketball. It’s been time for a change in basketball since the Katina Powell scandal broke two years ago. Jurich was unwilling to even wag a finger at his basketball coach.
Winning defined Jurich. If that required embracing football recruits like Willie Williams and Nate Harris and an assistant football coach like Clint Hurtt, so be it. When a Louisville assistant coach was alleged to receive a portion of the game plan from a Wake Forest radio guy last season, Jurich acted as if it was no big deal – until criticism led him to change course several days later.
In case you missed it, the U of L basketball program is on NCAA probation, with three coaches who were interviewed by federal investigators.
The University of Louisville is a proud, ambitious, vibrant community. There’s a fracture now because there is always a fracture when things end as harshly as they have with Pitino and Jurich. Somebody asked Tyra Wednesday if he was concerned the school is trying to de-emphasize athletics. No, the school is trying to do a better job of managing athletics. There's a difference.
Grissom and the board made the correct call Wednesday afternoon, even if fans deserve a more detailed explanation.
You play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back.
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