CRAWFORD | Ready to rumble: Louisville, Jurich trade punches, and everyone loses
The language in an exchange between the University of Louisville and former athletic director Tom Jurich points to a nasty, and potentially costly, battle ahead.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This is what it looks like when the gloves come off.
The University of Louisville sent a haymaker of a letter to former athletic director Tom Jurich, accusing him of “deliberate dereliction of duties, unprofessional conduct, bullying, and breach of … fiduciary obligations” in explaining his termination for cause.
Jurich fired back, through a letter from Boxcar PR, his public relations firm, calling U of L’s letter, “an after-the-fact effort to justify an unwarranted termination ‘for cause’ that the Board of Trustees voted without specifying any charges, at all.” It accuses U of L leadership of “character assassination of a man who has done so much for Louisville.”
The only winners in this fight will be the lawyers. Did somebody copy Michael Buffer on the email exchange?
At its heart, the letter from U of L president Greg Postel to Jurich is full of loaded language and inflammatory allegations, but few specifics.
It claims that Jurich was lax with compliance, fostered a “culture of tolerance … for behavior that falls short of NCAA” expectations, did not supervise, discipline or even properly evaluate coaches, bullied others at the university “from student government to … senior leadership,” and finally, and perhaps most seriously, “repeatedly engaged in willful misconduct by entering into multiple purported agreements or understandings with former President (James) Ramsey for your own financial or other benefit,” and did so, “with the intent of concealing them from campus or public knowledge.”
The letter ends with a roundhouse flurry: “Your deliberate dereliction of duties, unprofessional conduct, bullying, and breach of your fiduciary obligations cannot be considered isolated events. Instead, they are illustrative of a pattern and practice of willful misconduct resulting in substantial detriment to the university.”
The question is this. While the university threw a bunch of punches in this letter, did it land any? Or were some of these low blows?
Frankly, it’s tough to smear a guy when you’ve spent 19 years praising him. It makes for some awkward moments. Like when you challenge his efforts in compliance in multiple sports, only to have him remind you that the only major violations in his nearly two-decade tenure were recently in men’s basketball, and that the NCAA found no fault with the athletics administration in the only major case already adjudicated.
Moreover, the Jurich response states, the university’s allegation is, “the exact opposite of what Dr. Postel argued himself to the NCAA in April, including in the pending appeal of the penalties in the April NCAA hearing.”
Jurich’s letter states that in the April 2017 NCAA appeals hearing, “the prosecutor for the NCAA included in her closing remarks high praise for Tom Jurich saying he was ‘open and cooperative and honest in a way rarely seen.’ After the April 2017 hearing ended, other NCAA staff said such comments were unheard of.”
Jurich’s reply calls the allegations of clandestine financial arrangements with Ramsey, “simply untrue.”
“The contracts were clearly subject to the open records act and were in fact, widely published in local and national news media,” the letter states. “Four years ago, Tom Jurich was promised that his contract would be restated to accurately reflect promised compensation in a straightforward structure, but this was delayed over and over by the University of Louisville.”
And around we go. It’s not quite the Ali shuffle. And, frankly, lacks his poetry.
This letter represented U of L’s rationale for firing its successful and popular athletic director who also has used intimidation as a leadership strategy, perhaps with some of the wrong people, including around the university, and in the media. He was unflinchingly loyal to his coaches, but perhaps to a fault, his former bosses suggest.
At issue is whether that is enough to justify firing someone for cause, when the university allowed and even rewarded his behavior – and success – for years.
Reading the U of L letter, it’s hard not to be struck by the contempt in which the current leadership holds Jurich’s style, and actions, in the face of the larger picture of the university. That alone illustrates that the two could not continue to co-exist. It’s a wonder they existed together for as long as they did.
It also fails to land a knockout in terms of a single, specific, negligent act on the part of Jurich. It does a lot of complaining – much of it likely justified – but doesn’t give a single example of bullying, doesn’t outline a single act of financial impropriety, and uses vague but inflammatory language to do what once would have seemed incomprehensible – to smear the man who has fashioned the very athletic department on which U of L leadership will now try to continue to build.
It’s characterization of Jurich’s leadership style as “bullying” isn’t wrong, in some cases, like that of Bob Valvano, who has been outspoken about his experience in recent weeks. He’s not the only one in local media to voice that kind of story. This letter references – but does not describe -- instances of that with student government, which is inexcusable. As far as senior university leadership, if they let themselves be bullied, that’s their own fault. But I know there’s a fear factor, even now, with Jurich having been fired.
That kind of thing alone is enough to warrant a change. But it might not be “cause for termination.” And let’s be honest. Bullying isn’t uncommon in college athletics, or the high reaches of leadership in many fields, including politics. I covered Bob Knight for a half-dozen years. I know.
Regardless, if the contents of that letter alone are the basis on which the board of trustees fired Tom Jurich, and we have to assume they are, then the board would’ve been better off getting out its checkbook.
The ensuing bloodbath isn’t going to be worth it for anybody. If that’s the best shot the university has, then a body acting in the university’s best interests would’ve thanked Jurich for his service, handed him a check, and gotten on with life. Or, barring that, it would’ve tabled the discussion until more concrete evidence could be presented or some agreement could be reached.
That letter is damning, yes, but is the evidence beneath it – and not just the evidence beneath it, but the evidence that was presented to the board during the closed session in which the determination was made to fire Jurich – strong enough to withstand the legal challenge that is on its way?
Postel, in this letter, laid out a compelling case for dismissing Jurich, but didn’t lay out a clear path to the decision with facts, so much as he buried an employee with allegations.
And now, things get ugly. It’s a distraction that the university doesn’t need, not with an NCAA appeal under way, not with an FBI investigation going on, not with a fan base that is already fractured. The school already reportedly has lost one $6 million donation. It could lose more.
Let’s be clear. U of L’s board of trustees can fire its athletic director anytime it wants. Given that the board believed Jurich was no longer effective in his position, it was well within its rights to let him go. Whether the cause it cites, as it has been laid out now in the public, is enough to stand up to the legal challenge it is about to face, is what the sides -- and perhaps U of L fans -- will be fighting about for a while.
This is a fight that is in no way in U of L’s best interests.
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