CRAWFORD | Louisville board fires Jurich, then fuels dissension with its silence
Louisville's lack of explanation for the firing of Tom Jurich isn't going to do much to unite its fan base.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In the end, the vote wasn’t all that close. The University of Louisville board of trustees voted 10-3 to terminate the contract of athletic director Tom Jurich for cause.
Unfortunately, the trustees and interim president Greg Postel left Grawemeyer Hall without disclosing what the cause was. Before all you human resources types start hitting my inbox, I understand. There are laws in place.
I know what Human Resources 101 says: You don’t talk about personnel issues in public. But I also know what Common Sense 101 says: You don’t fire one of the faces of your university without explanation, and expect it to go over well with fans.
“Trust us” no longer works at U of L, where under-the-table deals and behind-closed-doors agreements are part of the reason the university is in the mess it’s in today.
Postel didn’t have to air the dirty laundry. He did need to give some indication of where the dirt had collected. Something. Instead, we got, “Since this matter is subject to legal constraints, I will not be taking any questions related to athletics.”
He then went on to say a few vague things, then to quote an adidas T-shirt slogan, of all things, “Rise to the occasion,” to challenge supporters of the university to do just that. He asked for a united fan base -- but his lack of clarity on this significant action likely will leave the fan base more fractured.
His remarks were ill-considered and insufficient. Nobody says nothing with more eloquence than college presidents. Yet even in that empty task, Postel came up short. The trustees offered no comment.
The crazy part is that this board might well have done the right thing. A clean slate, for a lot of reasons, may be the best option for a university athletic department staring down the barrel of a second straight major NCAA violation in one of its two revenue sports.
Cutting loose a 20-year athletic director who has done more than anyone in the school’s history to transform the downtown campus and who lifted the school from the ranks of mid-majors in football and other sports to the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference is a courageous call, and it might well prove to be the right one.
But when you don’t explain why you did it, you can’t expect the public to understand. You can’t blame the public for being angry. You can’t blame people if they question your judgment. And most importantly, you can’t truly ask for their support, or be surprised when it doesn’t come.
A clean slate is great. If the clean slate at U of L means more back-room dealings that can’t include the very public that institution is there to serve, then nobody there can complain when the public loses its enthusiasm for the enterprise.
If you can’t talk about specifics, good leadership dictates that you at least acknowledge what you can’t say, the frustration that will cause, and when you might be able to speak plainly to the university community.
If you vote to fire a guy for cause and can’t even state the nature of the cause, people who aren’t inclined to support you are likely to assume that you don’t have a legitimate cause at all. If you’re so worried about legal ramifications that you can’t even say, “We have concerns with the administration of the department and felt like a new start was best at this time,” then maybe you need to be on firmer legal ground before moving forward.
Because I can tell you, with many of the most passionate supporters of this athletic program, and among some people who write some pretty big checks, this is not sitting well.
Here’s the power of information.
James Ramsey announced the decision to ban the men’s basketball program from the 2015 postseason and gave no real details into why, except that the school believed NCAA violations had occurred. Because of that, he faced fierce public backlash. A year later, support for that decision was overwhelming. Even basketball coach Rick Pitino said the school did the right thing.
But by being obscure at the time, Ramsey hurt the program, hurt his own support, and caused an erosion of faith in his decision-making among supporters.
On Sunday night, I’d say fan support for the firing of Rick Pitino was probably at 90 percent, just from an informal survey of fans I know. Maybe higher. By Monday afternoon, when Steve Pence released a packet of information he’d given the athletic association board to the media and it was disseminated publicly, support for Pitino began to build back, as did anger at the leadership. I think a majority of Louisville fans still probably agree with the board’s decision to cut Pitino loose, but it’s a lot closer than it was, just from a presentation of Pitino’s arguments.
This stuff matters. This board already is putting the university in financial harm’s way with these personnel moves. Clearly, board members feel as if the moves create some legal jeopardy. The leadership now has compounded that by putting the university in the crosshairs of negative public opinion from the very people whose support it now needs most.
I’m not worried about Jurich or Pitino. Those guys are well off, and will be fine. I’m worried about the university itself.
Part of the reason Jurich ran into trouble with the board is that for so long he answered to no higher authority at the university. Postel and the board would do well to remember that they, too, must answer to someone where the athletic department is concerned – the people who sustain it financially, who donate, who buy tickets, who attend the games, who buy the merchandise.
It’s a tough deal writing a column when you, in principle, agree with someone’s actions, but you can’t defend them because they won’t explain them.
We’re dealing with a lot of smart people, with a lot of degrees. Conspiracy theorists, take note: The man who made the motion to terminate Jurich, James Rogers, is a U of L alum who also is a member of the athletic association board. The first trustee to speak in Jurich’s defense, Brian Cromer, holds a law degree from the University of Kentucky.
Louisville fans are railing about John Schnatter. Don’t count me among that group. For the record, Schnatter was right about the KFC Yum! Center deal. He walked away in protest. People criticized him for not joining the party. They thought he had an agenda. He did have an agenda – for the arena to be fiscally sound.
He called Jurich out, by name, during a trustee meeting in the spring. I don’t doubt he had his reasons. He had reportedly seen some things in terms of university athletic spending that the rest of us hadn’t. He wanted accountability. That doesn’t make you an adversary. In light of recent events, it makes you pretty smart.
I would caution people to take a moment and think about things. A single piece of information can change the entire complexion of any decision. Because of the university’s unwillingness to deal publicly, it’s best to wait for the full information before making a final call on this one.
For a contrast, see interim athletic director Vince Tyra. He took questions. He wasn’t a party to Jurich’s firing, but talked about his work at the university, and his legacy, and just his reaction. Tyra has done nothing but the right thing since the day he was hired. He is trying to repair bridges with former U of L players and coaches. It wasn’t long ago I was writing about how the university cut loose Denny Crum and Darrell Griffith as employees. The first thing Tyra did was reach out to those guys and others who felt like they’d been unwelcome at the university over the years.
Tyra knows the history of U of L athletics. He knows its fan base, because he’s been a part of it. I keep hearing people talking about athletics being “de-emphasized” at U of L. That’s preposterous. The school is in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It is a growing department with a future brighter than it’s ever been, assuming it navigates the present struggles the right way.
If there were any questions, take a look at Tyra’s one-year contract. It’s worth $1.2 million. That would make him, the fourth-highest paid athletic director in the nation, according to a USA Today database.
So once again, the U of L fan base is asked to make a leap of faith. And that’s tough for a bunch of fans who have had the ground beneath them disappear all too often lately.
Leadership isn’t just doing the right things, and it isn’t just about making the difficult decisions. It’s also about communicating your decisions in such a way as to unify people.
What we saw today was a board that might well have gotten two out of those three things right. But without communication, how can anyone be sure? At U of L, unfortunately, that’s nothing new.
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