BALTIMORE, Md. (WDRB) – Nobody ever said Tom Jurich couldn’t strike a deal. For 20 years at the University of Louisville, I saw him do and accomplish things that no one ever seriously imagined.

When he took over as athletic director in 1997, the national aspirations for men’s basketball and football had been well-established, but suggest that Louisville might play for a national title in women’s basketball or soccer in the coming decade or so, and you’d have been laughed at.

Suggest that Louisville would be in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a flagship program for adidas within 20 years and you’d have been dismissed. I know. I would have dismissed the ideas.

Given all that, the details of Tom Jurich’s final deal with U of L after his firing last fall are no surprise.

They called it a settlement. It was really a surrender.

U of L got out its checkbook and will pay the former athletic director just over $7 million – $4.5 million in a settlement, plus another $2.7 million in deferred and retirement pay he had accrued while employed.

It will allow him to keep eight club level seats, plus parking passes, for 20 years. It will provide medical coverage for Jurich and his wife Terrilyn until they reach retirement age. It will change the term of his firing to “without cause,” meaning that the university’s position no longer will be that he failed to perform his duties.

And his termination letter, you remember, the one that accused him of “willful misconduct . . . ineffective management, divisive leadership, unprofessional conduct and a lack of collegiality best characterized as intimidation and bullying,” that letter will be torn up and removed from his personnel record.

About all the university didn't give Jurich was the full amount of money his contract stipulated, and his job back.

How does this happen? How do you go from “willful misconduct” to “here’s a bunch of club seats and $7 million,” in the span of seven months?

There are three primary reasons and all are important.

The first? Jurich was holding the cards. We see how much money the university paid Jurich. What we don’t see is how much it truly contractually owed him. There were deals he made with former president James Ramsey that he never pressed for, non-athletic fundraising that he never took a cut of, but was entitled to by contract.

You don’t put together a package like U of L put together for Jurich unless there’s some fear that you’ll have to cough up a much larger package if the matter gets pressed legally. Had Jurich not been in a position of some strength legally, there would have been no reason to part with these kinds of concessions.

Secondly, Jurich clearly had some issues going on within the athletic department – but the university either was unwilling or unable to make a strong statement of fault that spelled out Jurich’s transgressions.

Yes, men’s basketball came unraveled. The working atmosphere, according to a lawsuit from former employee Kim Maffett and others, was not professional. There’s the whole bullying discussion that I won’t go into here. And there’s his support for Rick Pitino, for which he has come under criticism.

There was more. Foundation money flowing to athletics, or to Jurich. There were some questions over real estate deals that involved Jurich's family and the university. 

There’s a lot of stuff, but there’s nothing in that whole list that screams, “Fireable offense.”

I don’t know what kind of ammunition Louisville was holding, if any. We know that both sides went looking for ammunition. The private investigator fiasco. Jurich himself had inside knowledge of things that had gone on at the university.

But in the end, the university either didn’t have a knockout punch, or couldn’t bring itself to throw one, knowing what Jurich likely could throw back.

And thirdly, Jurich wasn’t just another ex-employee. He represents an entire body of work, and an entire section of campus, with which many Louisville fans still identify.

Semi-related: I was driving down the new overpass behind the baseball stadium one night not too long ago after a Louisville baseball game. An overpass that didn’t exist not too long ago. It was lined by those Cardinal-head street lights that also line Winkler Avenue now. To the right was the glow of the baseball stadium in the rearview mirror, then the football stadium under construction, and all of the other facilities. To the left was Speed School, and soon up ahead was the back of a fairly recently built academic building. And I thought, “Who knows what underhanded Ramsey deals went into getting all this land bought and this road and overpass built, but man, this place looks great.”

A university is more than its buildings and roads. And the school itself has issues, many of which new president Neeli Bendapudi is no doubt discovering in her early days on the job. It invested heavily in infrastructure, but not as much in people and students, it seems these days.

But for Jurich, who built those facilities on the right hand side of the overpass and changed the face of the campus, who identified donors who lent their names and gave their millions to make many of them happen, to trash his legacy is to tarnish all of it. It's one thing to try to erase the memory of a person and what he did. But you can't erase those buildings. You get get rid of a statue. A stadium is another story.

So U of L had to find a graceful way out of this. It had to find a way not to condemn Jurich, even after doing just that in the period around his firing, if only because the future of its athletic program depends on celebrating what he built.

Despite everything that has happened at U of L, the firings and missteps, despite the scandals, despite receiving ZERO points from men’s basketball or football, U of L’s athletic program ranks No. 18 in the nation in the Learfield Directors’ Cup points standings after the completion of the winter sports season. It is the highest ranking in the school’s history at that point.

All those other sports, all those buildings, all those new fans, those are the things Jurich cultivated, and they are his legacy.

In the end, the university decided it could afford $7 million. It could not afford to further damage that legacy. It could write a check. It couldn’t write Jurich and his accomplishments out of its history. So it rewrote history. The acrimonious days of October 2017 became a “retirement,” in the language of a statement released on Friday.

Seven months to the day after being fired, Tom Jurich is $7 million richer, has eight seats to Louisville basketball and football games, a clean slate to move forward, and a legacy that he and the university will continue to celebrate, minus a couple of basketball scandals.

Jurich is not perfect. Let’s be honest. But, man, you can’t say he’s not good.


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