By Rick Bozich
WDRB Sports

(Part one of two stories on Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Two framed pictures of Johnny Unitas sparkle from a shelf in the athletic director’s suite at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

Snapshots of Brian Brohm, Teddy Bridgewater, Chris Redman, Charlie Strong, Bobby Petrino and other former Cardinal greats are spaced across a pair of walls that flank a wet bar and mirrored area.

Of course, there are pictures of Lamar Jackson. And two photos of Tom Jurich, the former athletic director who formulated many of his colossal plans to transform Louisville athletics from inside this suite that he controlled from the day the football stadium opened in 1998.

Guess whose face you will not see in the two dozen or so photographs that tell the story of Cardinal football over the last two decades?

Vincent J. Tyra, Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics and Athletics Director.

“No need for that,” Vince Tyra said. “It’s not something I worry about.”

With the 2017-18 athletic year completed and next season about two months away, Tyra, 51, has quietly but effectively completed nine months of one of the most unforgiving assignments in athletics or leadership:

Being the man who follows The Man, replacing Jurich as the Cards’ AD.

There has been no time — and no desire — to redecorate. Not when a new men’s basketball coach (Chris Mack) needed to be hired. A Final Four women’s basketball coach (Jeff Walz) and College World Series baseball coach (Dan McDonnell) had to be retained in a lucrative job market.

The administrative staff had to be reorganized — and refocused. Budget concerns are always a topic, especially with lower basketball attendance and a larger obligation to the KFC Yum! Center.

Then there are always those folks who look at decisions Tyra has made through the relentlessly rosy philosophy of “In Tom We Trust.” Make no mistake: Despite the NCAA issues that percolated around Rick Pitino's basketball program, a significant group of Louisville fans did not want Jurich replaced.

You’d better find a more imaginative way of second-guessing what Tyra has done since replacing Jurich after his unexpected and acrimonious dismissal last fall.

"No, I've never worried about that,” Tyra said. “I'm respectful of what we have accomplished here, but I'm also respectful of what (former AD) Bill Olsen accomplished here and (former basketball coach) Peck Hickman and others who have built this.

“This place has been around a long time. It's not meant to be demeaning to anyone who's been here since before I was born or after, but I think this place is its own self. We're going to play our 100th football season this year and none of us here were there 100 years ago and none of us will be here after the next 100.

“I just think we're stewards of the good things we have here. And how do you make them better along the way …

“I’ve never really thought about comparisons because I feel like I have my own track record that I’m pretty proud of.

“I didn’t take any of these opportunities or invest in any of these companies to do the same or worse, I think, in the same role to say, ‘Jeez, I hope I can do as well or worse than Tom.’

“I came in here to say, ‘What can we build on to make this place better?’ “

Which is the same philosophy Tyra carried to Broder Brothers more than 15 years ago when he directed a sportswear company that had been run by a Broder family member for more than four decades.

Which is the same belief Tyra shared when he was 31 and took charge of a troubled $2.5 billion apparel company like Fruit of the Loom, replacing an executive who had been in charge for 25 years. 

Fixing a basketball program stained by a string of scandals that terminated a Hall of Fame coach and earned a cutting rap refrain from Drake this week is daunting. But so is sitting across from a decision maker from one of America’s top retailers and convincing him to keep featuring your product in his stores.

You can read that leadership advice from James Patterson and David Novak but you can’t pull out a book in a meeting with a Fortune 500 company.

“I felt like even before I wanted to sit in front of CEO Lee Scott of Walmart, I wanted to make sure we had all our ducks in a row internally with our people and our plan and what our vision was,” Tyra said. “What we were trying to execute on and do it well.

“I feel the same here. Before I got visible with large donors, with some corporate sponsors and with our fans, it was really making sure I had a grasp of what we needed to work on, get it refined and make improvements.

“We’re at that point. We’ve crossed that point now where we’re really executing and humming well in the department.”

You want the leadership snapshot of Tyra? It’s there. Not as visible as the record Jurich established. But it’s there. Jurich has a four-paragraph profile on Wikipedia and, until the last year, the reputation as one of the best athletic directors on the planet.

Tyra’s father, Charlie, also has a short Wikipedia entry as well as his jersey number hanging from the rafters at the KFC Yum! Center, confirming his status as one of Louisville’s basketball legends. Charlie Tyra, number 8, was a formidable 6-foot-8 Cardinal forward,, who also starred at Atherton High School and scored more than 3,000 points for three NBA teams.

Vince Tyra’s Wikipedia entry is like his picture in the athletic director’s suite: It does not exist.

Somebody needs to write one. They can borrow the material from his LinkedIn profile.

It outlines his impressive business career in industries as diverse as apparel, home improvement materials, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and transportation services. Don’t forget his success in private equity and his ability to connect and succeed in worlds that take Tyra to golf venues on Long Island like Shinnecock Hills.

This is a fiercely competitive guy who was a multi-sport star at St. Margaret Mary Elementary School and Trinity High School. Gene Keady (Purdue), Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Iowa, Wake Forest and other programs discussed a basketball scholarship.

Tyra remembers the day when a future Michigan Mr. Basketball ran him into exhaustion on an outdoor court at the Blue Chip Basketball Camp in Rensselaer, Ind. That was the day that confirmed which sport was his future.

Vince Tyra would rely on his 92 mph fastball, reliably harsh curveball and frequently deceptive change up. He was a pitcher, a pitcher with a linebacker’s mentality.

Tyra threw a one-hitter as a freshman at Clemson for the University of Kentucky. He started 37 games before moving into the bullpen and ignoring a sore right arm to finish his senior season with gusto.

Tyra is a relentlessly upbeat, considerate, confident and thoughtful guy but it certainly would be entertaining to uncover video of the UK baseball games when Tyra informed three future American League all-stars — Frank Thomas (Auburn), Tino Martinez (Tampa) and Albert Belle (Louisiana State) — that they had become too comfortable with their home run strokes in the batter’s box against the struggling Wildcats.

During our interview this week, Tyra and I had this fun exchange:

Question: You liked to buzz the tower (pitch inside)?

Tyra: “Had no problem …”

Question: Did you have to bat back then? Could they get back at you?

Tyra: “They had DH (designated hitter), thankfully, because I hit Frank Thomas, I hit Tino Martinez and caused a bench clear(ing brawl). I hit Albert Belle. Yeah, I hit a bunch of all stars.”

Question:  Whoa. You hit Frank (a first-ballot Hall of Famer with the White Sox)?

Tyra: “Yeah.”

Question: I’m a White Sox fan. I'm not sure I'm happy with that.

Tyra: “I hit him in the hip. It fell straight down and I thought I was dead. (Thomas is 6 feet 5, 240 pounds and also a former football player).”

Question: Did he glare at you?

Tyra: “He glared at me but he's a heckuva nice guy, thankfully, and he went to first base.

Question: Where was Tino?

Tyra: “Tampa.”

Question: He’s a nice guy. He (donated) money for (U of L’s Patterson Stadium.) Why would you hit him?

Tyra: “Yeah, he hit three home runs the day before.”

Question: Seriously?

Tyra: “Yeah.”

Question: You were just trying to move him off the plate?

Tyra: “No, I was trying to hit him.”

Question: Were you trying to hit Frank, too?

Tyra: “I was never going to hurt anyone. Yeah. But I never hit them up high.”

Question: I didn't know your nickname was Head Hunter?

Tyra: “Well that was before, back then. I just wanted to ding them.”

Question: Albert Belle is a little crazy (so) that was a very good move.

Tyra: “Little (crazy) is a little light. He's a lot. Same thing. He was a big talker. He was a terrific. By the way, all these guys were amazing players. They were future all stars, Hall of Famer types in the major leagues.

“But, he was definitely one that you were worried about he was going to come out with the bat.”

Question:   So he was trash talking your teammates?

Tyra:  “Yeah he was trash talking. And it happened, Back then it was a different game. i'm not saying I would teach my son to do that.”

That does not read like a guy who flinches from competition or a comparisons. Tyra does not.

This is a guy who in nine months has settled on his next basketball coach and hired him away from his alma mater. He retained two of the most valuable assets on his coaching roster, started the journey of replacing a leader that a segment of the Louisville fan base thought was irreplaceable and formed his game plan for the future of the athletic department.

There is more sunshine and less bile in his e-mails. A fractured fan base is healing. There is more talk about how the next basketball teams will come together instead of how quickly last season’s team plunged at season’s end.

“It feels like it, I think from what comes through my inbox and what gets mailed to me,” Tyra said. “They’re more encouraging. It will never be 100 percent.

“And look, I'm not trying to twist anybody's thoughts about how they feel about any of the individuals that are a part of U of L's legacy.

“I'm just more focused on going forward. But I'm pretty comfortable with where we are right now based on the feedback from internal and then I'd say external. Pretty comfortable that we're headed in a good direction.”

Copyright 2018 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.