They might be gone, but they haven’t gone away.
Tom Jurich is no longer the athletics director at Louisville, Rick Pitino no longer the head basketball coach. Yet of late they keep popping up in the media, still offering their takes on why they feel they were wrongfully terminated two months ago.
“The Miami situation is exactly the same as mine,” Pitino told the Courier-Journal’s Tim Sullivan last week, “but nobody’s fired in the country except me.”
“I’ve given this school 20 years of dignity,” Jurich told ESPN The Magazine. “I would hope I would get a little bit in return, and I certainly haven’t yet.”
The Miami situation isn’t the same, of course. Pitino still doesn’t get it. There was his involvement with Karen Sypher that led to an embarrassing extortion trial. That was strike one. There was the so-called “Stripper Scandal” where a staff member arranged for “entertainment parties” of players and recruits. Pitino claimed not to know what was going on. He should have known. That was strike two.
Then came the FBI investigation which turned up alleged Adidas payments to entice recruit Brian Bowen to enroll at U of L. Yet again, Pitino claims to have been wrongly implicated. Didn’t matter. Strike three.
Of the two men, however, Jurich’s is the more interesting case. He persuaded Pitino to come to Louisville after the former Kentucky coach was fired by the Boston Celtics. He stuck by Pitino in the Sypher scandal and then again when the program was hit by NCAA sanctions over the parties at Minardi Hall. Pitino’s third strike in the FBI matter was Jurich’s third strike, as well.
Yet there is no doubt Jurich built the Louisville athletics program from a struggling mid-major — except for basketball — into a national power, one that went from Conference USA to the prestigious ACC.
His hires of John L. Smith, Charlie Strong and Bobby Petrino (twice) transformed the football program. He hired Dan McDonnell, who has taken Louisville baseball to four College World Series. He hired Jeff Walz, who has taken U of L women’s basketball to a pair of NCAA championship games.
In academic year 2012-13, Louisville won the NCAA Tournament in men’s basketball; finished as the national runner-up to Connecticut in the women’s tournament; reached the College World Series in baseball and finished 11-2 with a Sugar Bowl win over Florida in football. You can’t do much better than that.
With success came power, however, too much power, as is so often the case. If you talked to people in Louisville the past few years, it wasn’t that U of L athletics administrators were doing anything wrong, it’s that there was no one to tell them if they were. There were no checks-and-balances, just lots of checks without much balance.
As ESPN The Magazine detailed, considering all compensation, Jurich was making $5.3 million a year. He owned vacation homes in Clearwater Beach, Fla., and Steamboat Springs, Colo. His son Mark was making $133,545 as a senior associate AD for development. To get around the school’s nepotism policy, Mark Jurich was paid by the Louisville Foundation. Tom Jurich’s daughter Haley was hired as the Adidas representative for U of L.
The money is in a different stratosphere, but Louisville’s mode of operation is reminiscent of UK Athletics in the late 1990s and early 2000s when C.M. Newton, followed by Larry Ivy, were athletics directors and Charles Wethington was the president. The UK Athletics Association operated separately from the university without much oversight.
Lee Todd changed all that. When a football scandal landed the school yet again on NCAA probation, the new UK president changed the structure. Soon, Mitch Barnhart was hired to replace Ivy as AD. The UKAA board was folded into the main board of trustees. Since then, UK has remained out of the NCAA doghouse. And Barnhart has built a successful all-around athletics program.
Meanwhile, Louisville is picking up the pieces. Vince Tyra is the interim athletics director. David Padgett is the interim basketball coach. Still seeing themselves as victims, Jurich and Pitino are gone but not forgotten. Neither seems ready to let that happen.