A newfangled kingdom reels suddenly, with craters where giants used to stand.
Louisville, the school that rose so shrewdly in the 21st-century, college-sports realignment game, stares into a yawning uncertainty. Louisville, which only 13 days ago hosted a broadcast of ESPN’s “College GameDay” that made it look like some Roman stalwart, its centerpiece rotunda shimmering in the background all morning long, has gone lost without a flashlight. And Louisville which, near the end of that show trotted out its Hall of Fame basketball coach in a No. 8 football jersey to serve as guest prognosticator in another display of widespread energy, with a huge men’s basketball season just up ahead …
Now, as one lifelong fan downtown observed of the campus, “Have you been over there? It feels like ‘Zombieland.’”
Well, there was one enticing-looking fraternity party on a back porch Thursday evening.
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Leave it to fraternity parties to remind us all that normalcy can persist.
Otherwise, here’s the eloquent Vanessa Cantley, a graduate of the University of Louisville School of Law, an attorney, a restaurateur and a Louisville fan who first saw the Cardinals live at age 9: “We thought we were finally moving past, I hate to say it, but the past scandal. This year came with a lot of anticipation. And now it’s like standing on a cliff preparing to fly, and you fall off the side instead.”
Recovery will come, she predicted, even as recovery will be grueling.
Let’s tally some of the ways Louisville had become a kingdom before the devastation of Tuesday, when it turned up in complaints alleging bribery and other crimes released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and before the craters of Wednesday, when its Hall of Fame basketball coach, Rick Pitino, and its admired athletics director, Tom Jurich, met rapid ouster:
▪ As of July 1, 2014, the university had found its way into the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference, capping a 10-year climb from Conference USA, the Big East and a layover in the American Athletic Conference.
▪ It awaited Pitino’s 17th season, his coaching cachet enough to surmount two previous sideshows, one in which he was a victim of extortion, the other in which NCAA slapped him with a five-game suspension and his program four years’ probation for hiring strippers and escorts for athletes in a university building.
▪ It had known three Final Fours and a 2013 national title this century, with more such goodies plausibly ahead.
▪ In football, it had a nationally relevant program and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner (Lamar Jackson), enough to override that it had rehired another coach with his own past scandal screaming from his CV (Bobby Petrino).
▪ Its women’s basketball program had reached two national title games this century, losing both to Connecticut, which happens to most everyone. It had breakthroughs in baseball, with four College World Series berths in the last 11 seasons, and in men’s soccer, with a 2010 trip to the College Cup, that sport’s version of the Final Four.
▪ And the facilities! Had you visited the place repeatedly during the 1990s but not in the 2000s but then again in the 2010s, you might have felt the need to ask directions, so posh and different had things become.
In this rowdy, friendly city whose citizens adore it utterly, it grew common to hear glowing talk about a guy behind a desk — an athletics director, Jurich, his office being so clearly the room where it happens.
It might have been built all on the cherished national absurdity of college athletics, but built it was.
But now, a wise man used the word “Armageddon” without joking. It’s not just the possible removal of the 2013 banner and the festive 2013 signs that dot the town. It’s not just the hurried withdrawal of two primo 2018 recruits, the five-star guard Anfernee Simons from Bradenton, Fla., and the four-star guard Courtney Ramey from suburban St. Louis. It’s not even that as Thursday turned to Friday, not even those most in-the-know knew when practice might start, or which interim coach might start it. It’s not that some Carolinians are sneering, wondering why the ACC let in Louisville, even as North Carolina itself awaits NCAA word on a sprawling academic scandal involving athletes and covering roughly an eon (1993-2011).
It’s the economy, and it’s not stupid, given the thoughts of a potential NCAA death penalty for the men’s basketball program given its multiple and repeated violations. As Jonathan Blue, the chairman of Blue Equity, a lifelong fan and a former member of the university’s Board of Trustees, said: “It’s much bigger than the program and the university now. You’re talking about the city itself.”
He said: “You’re talking about the viability of the Yum Center,” the spiffy arena that changed the very look and contour of downtown when it opened in 2010. “What I’m saying is that in the event of the death penalty, you will have a facility that’s dark, other than concerts. The anchor tenant would go dark and that would be quite a blow for this city and state.”
And so: “You’re talking about the viability of downtown Louisville and potentially the rest of the state.”
Seeing “a dark cloud over the city during a beautiful week, weather-wise,” he said, “No one could have imagined this. Hopefully we’ll recover, but this week has been total Armageddon.”
He did cite the city’s resilience and mention a flood in 1937.
It’s like that here.
Noting that from “November to March, basketball just consumes us,” Cantley, the attorney, said, “It’s just such a part of our fabric. It really is. We’re the number-one [college basketball] market for a reason.”
“Remember,” Blue said, “this is all we have. There is no hockey team down the street” — and if there were, it still would bow to basketball.
So many questions: How might this team fare in the big cloud? Will the NCAA allow it into the postseason, as it weighs Louisville’s appeal from the previous sanctions doled out in June? What will become of the season of Brian Bowen, the five-star recruit who was unnamed but obvious in the 28-page report that alleged to have $100,000 being arranged to whoosh to his family? How mad is the ACC?
Tangled into all that, there’s that overwhelming sense of scandal fatigue. If carnage is nigh, then carnage it will be.
“As someone who runs businesses, I mean my law firm, and we run restaurants, you have to have some control of people working for you,” Cantley said. “Clearly, the message from the top down wasn’t good enough. Clearly, the people who worked for Tom Jurich and Rick Pitino did not take the message seriously enough.”
She said: “I think I speak for the majority of the base when I saw that our patience with the situation wore thin. But Jurich, what he’s been able to do from top to bottom with almost every single sport, has been almost unparalleled. . . . I made all sorts of excuses, I’m embarrassed to say. But yes, there comes a point when even the most hardcore fans like me say, ‘Okay, enough is enough now. It’s embarrassing. It’s awful.’ We’re finally tired of it. We’re finally tired enough where I would say, just 95 percent of the fan base is just in favor of cleaning and sweeping house.”
While noting that, “Whatever horse you bet on, whatever idea you back, whatever team you back … it is really psychologically difficult to get somebody to change their viewpoint of something they’ve invested in,” she had reached this unforeseen point:
“We want our school back. We want our reputation back. We need some integrity.”
After all, if you went looking in vain this week for a coach related to this scandal du jour, GPS would have led you to a possible residence, and to the sign in front of the building: Billy Minardi Hall. It was named for Pitino’s beloved brother-in-law who died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and it was named in the NCAA report of violations as the site of that other scandal from this decade, the prostitution one. Anyone who knows the city well and loves it well could have come upon that sign and felt a wave of sadness.