Louisville's time in ACC replete with success, shortcomings
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Amid NCAA scandal, Louisville wins relentlessly.
By David Teel, Daily Press, 6-23-17
Louisville’s 2012 invitation to join the ACC included none of the babbling about academic and cultural fit that accompanied much of conference realignment. This was a sports business transaction, and no one pretended otherwise.
Both parties have profited.
Just completing their third season in the league, the Cardinals have excelled as many anticipated. Their revenue sports, football and men’s basketball, win. Their Olympic programs win.
Indeed, since joining the ACC, Louisville is a combined 333-106 in football, men’s and women’s basketball, and baseball. That .759 winning percentage in the four major sports paces the league by a wide margin — Florida State is next at .703 (312-132).
Moreover, the Louisville market devours college sports on television like few, if any, in the country, a boon to the ACC Network that launches in 2019 in conjunction with ESPN.
Even the classroom component has worked. In men’s basketball, the Cardinals have a perfect NCAA Academic Progress Rate of 1,000. Their most recent football APR of 988 trailed only Duke’s 992 in the ACC.
Trust me, APR and academic reputation were not part of the calculation in 2012. Charter member Maryland had blindsided ACC officials by defecting to the Big Ten, and in less than two weeks the league selected Louisville's sports portfolio as a quality replacement.
And that it's been, a credit to athletes, coaches and administrators, led by Tom Jurich, the Cardinals’ athletic director since 1997.
So what’s not to like? Alas, plenty.
The NCAA last week punished Louisville for a scandal in which a former men’s basketball staffer provided prostitutes and strippers to 15 prospects and three enrolled athletes. At least seven and as many as 10 of the recruits were under age 18.
That’s an antiseptic depiction of gatherings in which some of the young men, according to the NCAA, were clearly uncomfortable and coerced by adults to participate.
The Committee on Infractions suspended coach Rick Pitino for Louisville’s first five ACC games next season and ordered the school to vacate victories and championships earned with the players deemed ineligible for having received the impermissible "benefits.” Barring an overturn on appeal, the Cardinals’ 2013 national championship and 2012 Final Four will be erased, the accompanying banners removed.
The NCAA has vacated Final Fours of Memphis, Ohio State, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, UCLA, Villanova, Western Kentucky and Saint Joseph’s. Never has it stripped a national men’s basketball championship.
Now Louisville is hardly alone among its ACC colleagues in running afoul of NCAA regs — Syracuse and North Carolina are recent examples — and the Cardinals did self-impose a postseason ban for the 2015-2016 season. But as in previous matters we’ll delve into later, school officials have offered more defiance than remorse.
Pitino and Jurich object to the latest NCAA penalties, the coach steadfastly saying that he had no idea of the antics festering on his watch. But whether or not he knew, one fact remains: Families entrusted their young men to Pitino and Louisville, only to be failed miserably.
Yet Pitino whines about a five-game suspension? Really? He’s lucky to still be on the payroll.
Yes, the removal of banners rips at a program’s fabric, but vacating results has long been the sentence for using ineligible athletes. Deal with it.
Were this Louisville’s only recent misstep, alarms wouldn’t ring. But it’s not.
The bizarre "Wakeyleaks” affair, in which a disgruntled Wake Forest football radio analyst, Tommy Elrod, offered Deacons game-plan information to opponents, was exposed last season at Louisville. The Cardinals weren’t the only Wake Forest opponent to accept intel from Elrod — Virginia Tech and Army did, too — but Jurich initially dismissed the matter.
Only when the public and ACC commissioner John Swofford recoiled did Jurich suspend the assistant coach who accepted the documents, co-offensive coordinator Lonnie Galloway, for the Cardinals’ Citrus Bowl game.
Louisville’s dysfunctions reach far higher than the athletic department. Hounded by allegations of financial malfeasance, James Ramsey last year resigned as president of the university and its foundation — Gregory Postel is Louisville’s interim president.
Released earlier this month, an audit of the foundation "confirmed and detailed excessive spending and self-dealing carried out by top administrators,” the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote.
A small portion of the audit addressed athletics and, per WDRB.com’s Eric Crawford, revealed myriad financial connections between Jurich’s department and the foundation. Among them, a 2012 transaction that saw athletics tap its endowment for $2 million, purportedly to fund pay raises for faculty and staff in the wake of state higher-education budget cuts.
As Crawford noted, the audit said the exchange prompted a note from Ramsey’s chief of staff, Kathleen Smith, to executive senior associate athletic director Kevin Miller:
"In regard to recognition, for various internal political reasons, we need to announce that Athletics has come through for us in one of our darkest hours. We will be very general in comments, but we must say the fund source was Athletics stepped up to help us make this possible. …
"This note is between you, Tom [Jurich], Dr. Ramsey and me. I do not want it on the email where we have very little control. Please destroy your earlier note to me. I have done the same here.”
Why did Louisville want such a noble narrative in the public discourse during early 2012? Well, that was precisely the time the school was lobbying Power Five conferences such as the ACC and Big 12 for inclusion.
No matter that the narrative was incomplete. The audit showed that in exchange for the $2 million from athletics, the foundation purchased land earmarked for a soccer stadium.
But it’s not just Ramsey or the foundation. It’s not just Wakeyleaks or the NCAA violations.
It’s the accumulation, which almost certainly unsettles Louisville’s conference brethren.
John Schnatter of Papa John’s pizza fame, the Cardinals’ most visible booster and a member of the university’s Board of Trustees, recently criticized Jurich’s leadership, prompting a strong counter.
In remarks to the Louisville Athletic Association board chronicled by the Courier-Journal, Jurich lamented "unbelievable” scrutiny of his department’s finances.
"But that’s what we signed up for,” he said. "I came here to win. That’s what we buy these big scoreboards. We like to win, and we try to do it the right way. We try to do it with class and integrity, and we try to hire the best people. … I’ve always been very ambitious and very aggressive. If that doesn’t fit the bill, so be it, but that’s the way I was told to do it.”
When Jurich, the Sports Business Journal’s 2007 Athletic Director of the Year, arrived at Louisville from Colorado State two decades ago, the Cardinals annually languished below 100th in the Directors’ Cup all-sports standings. Now they’re top-50 staples and this year may surpass their best finish of 28th.
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy. Swimmer Mallory Comerford shared the NCAA 200 freestyle title with Olympic phenom Katie Ledecky of Stanford. Brendan McKay was the fourth pick of Major League Baseball’s draft and led the Cardinals to the College World Series.
Louisville's challenge is to sustain that success while rediscovering its integrity.
This article has been reprinted on Clips with the author's permission.