It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair . . .
. . . it is the Tale of Two Men.
The tale of two empires really, one inside the other, conjoined, intertwined, two conquerors of all that could be seen and beyond.
Two “brands,” to use a term these men in full so often invoked, who reached further, higher than than their constituents would have ever hoped.
Two empires, two men, whose reigns have collapsed under the weight of their own hubris and neglect. Two stars, their light extinguished, their constituencies swallowed into a black hole.
Tom Jurich and Rick Pitino were the greatest show in town from the get go.
The suspended, surely to be terminated Louisville Cardinal AD arrived an unknown quantity, just when the halcyon days of the Denny Crum era were fading, the basketball program in precipitous decline.
Coming off Crum’s worst campaign in ’97-’98, the ship righted momentarily the following year and returned to the NCAA, where the Cards would open play in Orlando. The night before the game there was a harbinger of the way things were going to be in the years to come with Jurich in charge.
He hosted a sumptuous reception for Cardinal fans the night before the game. Open bar. Tables of Plaza Hotel Bar Mitvah quality hors d’ouerves. Enough to feed and sate the thirst of ten times the number of the few fans there.
Members of the school athletic department were smiling, shrugging in disbelief, amazed at the generous hospitality. “We never did anything like this under Bill,” one observed.
Bill was Bill Olsen, Jurich’s predecessor. Olsen had been a solid AD, but was disinclined to spend money, though he had accumulated much through the years with mandated annual contributions required for fans to buy primo tickets.
Tom Jurich proved the antithesis of that skinflint mentality. He saw the monies piled up in Athletic Department coffers, and saw a big gravel parking lot across from the student center hard by the expressway. His vision was soon born.
Soon enough that vacant eyesore was a track & field stadium, a softball stadium, a field hockey stadium, a running track, and U of L sports was off and racing to an era theretofore beyond any reasonable dream.
That cocktail reception was one of the first steps in Jurich’s grande plan. Cater to the flush fat cats. Spend money to make money. Build the best facilities. Hire the best people. Pay them the best money. Upgrade the vision.
And, by golly, he did it, pushing, planning, prodding U of L to membership in the ACC and into the upper echelon of collegiate athletics.
It has been, frankly, an ascension incomprehensible when he took over.
In the seasons after that loss to Creighton, the day after that reception, it became increasingly obvious that the Crum Era was in diminishment. He needed to be replaced.
It was an unnecessarily ugly transition period.
If less than deft in how he handled matters, Jurich showed his mettle in picking coaches.
His choice to replace the beloved Denny Crum was controversial. But astute.
For many long time Cardinal faithful, Rick Pitino was evil.
“I don’t like this a bit,” one Athletic Department employee told me. But we swallowed hard, caught our breath, set aside our resentments and skepticism and accepted.
The beginning of the Pitino Era was another Extravaganza. Grande reception at the Convention Center. A joyous gathering of the faithful.
The image that remains indelible, other than Pitino walking through the door like returning royalty to thunderous applause and adulation, is of Owsley Frazier, on the way to becoming Jurich’s pocketbook. After Pitino’s triumphant entrance, he took the stage to address the assembled. Such was the new basketball coach’s charisma that Frazier, a man of significant stature and standing in the community, turned into a kid. Scooting closer and closer to the podium in his wheel chair, to come within reach, to touch the hem of Pitino’s garment.
That’s how the reigns of Jurich and Pitino began. With hoopla and hope.
For the AD it was full speed ahead. There were only a few road blocks. The hiring of Steve Kragthorpe being the most notable.
That the accumulation of assets trumped long time loyalty irked many of the faithful, fans who had been there with Peck Hickman at the Armory and Frank Camp, when football was but a minor diversion. Fans who had bought in to annual contributions during Bill Olsen’s tenure. Fans who loved the Cards when they were truly still little brother.
They appreciated how University of Louisville sports was climbing the ladder, but loathed that fresh lucre let new folks jump the line for tickets and access.
When Jurich and Pitino, whose reign has been up and down and too full of drama from the beginning, spoke of the department and hoops program as “brands,” the old timers blanched.
Freedom Hall wasn’t good enough anymore. Forget that it is one of basketball hallowed venues, it couldn’t generate enough income. It wasn’t shiny enough.
And so it went.
Everything got big, bigger, best. Along with it came more commercials, more long-haired dancing LadyBirds, more ploys by the Athletic Department to reach into our billfolds, less collegiate rah rah sis boom bah
Success ensued. In hoops and football and other sports that fans had never cared about before, men’s and women’s. Jurich knew how to hire game winners, Pitino included
Basketball scandal(s) ensued, the program becoming a yearly soap opera starring The Rick. The Rick is taking a leave of absence for a mysterious health ailment, only to return hale and hearty a couple days later. The Rick boffs a groupie on a restaurant banquette and turns himself into a victim. Hookers for recruits in the Dorm. The Rick knows nuttin’ honey. A five star shows up on The Rick’s doorstep, with a pocket full of cash. No problem, dude, come on in.
The fan base turned ostrich. Jurich, a bottom line guy if ever there was one, stood by his man, out of a sense of loyalty or commercial accommodation. Meanwhile he’s setting up his kids, one with a salary from the the Foundation — Thank you, Jim Ramsey — another with a job at adidas.
It must be asked, and the answer far from certain will be different depending on the perspective of who is responding:
Success and championships on the fields of play versus the setting aside of ethics and morals?
Has it been worth it?
* * * * *
Besides the Dickens quotation in my lede, two others come to mind.
My father, who honed his parenting skills in the Age of Adages, often said to me, “If something appears too good to be true, it probably is.”
When that AAU coach called Pitino in the spring — the now debunked tale fallaciously propagated by Pitino regarding Bowen — and supposedly asked if he wanted a Top 20 recruit that the school hadn’t been recruiting, was there not a thought that something nefarious might be going on? Did the out of the blue gift pass the smell test?
Rick Pitino may be a lot of things, incredible basketball coach being one. But he is not naive.
Of course, it appears Pitino’s take on that was a shuck all along. It appears he talked with the money guy at the shoe company several times to close the deal. At the same time he was appealing some slap on the wrist sanctions for NCAA violations in a previous matter.
Then there’s this quote, heard again during the PBS series on Vietnam for the first time in decades, uttered by a commanding officer who surely loved to awaken to the smell of napalm in the morning, “We had to destroy the village to save it.”
Oxymoronic as that statement may be, it aptly applies to the University of Louisville basketball program.
Rick Pitino ruled it like a tow headed Asian dictator with nuclear visions. He eschewed tradition and acted like the twice previous national champs were a never was before he arrived. Last season’s media guide was 200 pages, the imposed limit. Of those 11 were just about Pitino, including his accomplishments at Hawaii, BU, Providence and U of L’s hated arch rival Kentucky.
By comparison, Denny Crum, Hall of Famer and winner of two national titles, is “featured” on 1/6 of one page. At the bottom.
Which is to acknowledge, as painful as it is for a die hard like me, that rock bottom must be hit for the rebuild to begin, for a renovation based on the tradition of Peck Hickman and Charlie Tyra and Wes Unseld and Butch Beard and Jerry King and Herbert Crook. And Denny Crum.
* * * * *
The Rick is sayonara. No tears here.
The program will be a player again. Hopefully within my lifetime.
The situation with Tom Jurich is more difficult, not as clear cut.
I hate his money grabbing manner. I hate that he turned U of L sports into a “brand.”
But what he has done along Floyd Street is nothing short of amazing. Incredible facilities. Talented coaches. National exposure. Membership in the ACC. Attention to womens’ athletics. (U of L has, I believe, the only stadium in the country dedicated solely to women’s lacrosse.)
Yes, his loyalty to Rick Pitino was too true, lasted too long. Setting up his kids with adidas and through the Foundation stinks.
The good he has done for U of L sports, for the university itself, may for some actually outweigh his faults.
But he’s surely gone, and will be hard to replace.
It’s just so damn sad that the school I love is in such a sorrowful state.
One more quote from Dylan, one I invoke probably too often, but is apropos here. Though U of L basketball isn’t as dead as Hattie Carroll, it’s Code Red.
Bury the rag deep in your face/ Now is the time for your tears.
— Seedy K