For most of this century, when people would ask me who has been the most impressive person I had met covering sports in Kentucky, I would always answer “Tom Jurich.”
From the time he was hired away from Colorado State in 1997, Jurich transformed the University of Louisville from a metropolitan commuter school with a powerful men’s basketball tradition into a national-level, all-sports power.
Under Jurich, U of L football played in the Orange Bowl and the Sugar Bowl. Louisville men’s basketball reached three Final Fours and won the 2013 NCAA championship.
The Cardinals women’s basketball program made it to two NCAA title games. Louisville’s baseball program earned four appearances in the College World Series. U of L men’s soccer played in one national championship game.
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Just last school year, different Louisville athletes 1.) won the Heisman Trophy; 2.) swept every major baseball national player of the year award; and 3.) tied Olympic swimming sensation Katie Ledecky in an NCAA championship race.
Across the years, the Louisville AD’s relentless construction of athletics facilities dramatically altered the look and feel of the U of L campus for the better.
In a time when conference realignment created a musical chairs effect that has left some successful athletics programs stranded outside “the big time,” Jurich navigated Louisville from Conference-USA to the Big East and, crucially, into the Atlantic Coast Conference.
It is hard to overstate the impact of Tom Jurich on U of L.
So when Louisville interim president Greg Postel announced Wednesday that Jurich had been placed on paid administrative leave, thought to be the first step toward dismissal, after yet another scandal has engulfed the U of L men’s basketball program, it truly marked the fall of a commonwealth sports giant.
Yet the seeds that led to Jurich’s downfall had been sown long before we discovered Tuesday that the FBI has video of one of Rick Pitino’s basketball assistants participating in an alleged scheme to pay the family of a touted recruit $100,000.
The “tone” being set for Louisville Athletics by Jurich in recent years had seemed remarkably tolerant of scandal.
In 2013, when then-Louisville football assistant Clint Hurtt was given a show-cause penalty by the NCAA for his part in a recruiting scandal in his prior job at Miami, Jurich and U of L did not dismiss the assistant.
Louisville’s stance was in stark contrast to Florida, which did cut ties with ex-Hurricanes assistant Aubrey Hill in the same situation.
When Charlie Strong bolted U of L to become the head football coach at Texas, Jurich made a move that did not enhance the university’s reputation.
Jurich had built much of his name identifying up-and-coming coaching talent — Dan McDonnell in baseball, Jeff Walz in women’s basketball, Strong and Bobby Petrino (the first time) in football.
This time, with U of L about to step up in class by joining the ACC, Jurich eschewed that approach and brought back the scandal-tainted Petrino.
Two years earlier, Petrino had been fired as head coach at Arkansas after he hired his mistress for a job in the Razorbacks’ football office over more qualified candidates, then lied to his boss about the relationship.
Whatever Petrino’s merits as a strategist — and he is a genius at drawing up football plays — “bringing Bobby back” helped cement U of L’s reputation as a school that seemed to value winning at close to all costs.
Of course, Rick Pitino and the travails of the Cardinals basketball program have done the most to create that impression.
Jurich stood behind Pitino in 2009 when a prior extramarital sexual encounter of the coach’s became public because his partner in the tryst tried to blackmail him.
The U of L AD backed Pitino again in 2015 when a self-described Louisville “escort queen” wrote a book saying she had provided strippers/escorts for sex parties for Louisville players and teenage recruits, mostly in the Cardinals’ men’s basketball dorm.
In June, the NCAA announced that U of L was likely to have to “vacate” its 2012 Final Four appearance and 2013 NCAA championship as a result of that scandal.
This week, when Louisville turned up in a primary role in the FBI investigation into sleazy financial practices in the world of college basketball recruiting, it seemed a final indictment of the “culture” Jurich had helped create.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Jurich issued a statement through his attorney that seemed to indicate he planned to fight to keep his job.
In many ways, Tom Jurich has been the most significant figure in college sports in the commonwealth so far this century.
That should not change the fact that U of L Athletics needs a new leader with far less tolerance for Louisville being seen as America’s “school for scandal.”