University of Louisville fans have had a lot to cheer about lately — and not just basketball.
Monday’s big victory by Louisville’s men’s basketball team over Michigan is just the latest success for the school and for an athletic department that is quickly becoming one of the country’s most admired.
In January, the football team upset fourth-ranked Florida to win the Sugar Bowl, and coach Charlie Strong turned down a lucrative offer from the University of Tennessee to continue rebuilding the Louisville program.
Louisville also fields some of the nation’s best teams in other sports, like soccer and baseball.
Why has this state-supported urban institution with a full-time undergraduate enrollment of 12,000 turned into a national athletic powerhouse? Men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino and most others are quick to point to athletic director Tom Jurich as the reason. Pitino says Jurich has raised the university’s profile in ways different from other schools, forging a strong bond with Louisville’s corporate citizens. Jurich came to Louisville from Colorado State University 15 years ago. He’s overseen the athletic department’s growth into a profitable, $80-million-a-year operation.
“A lot of times you’re walking a tightrope because you need funds to build facilities. You need facilities to generate funds. It’s a little bit of a chicken-or-the-egg type of situation, but he’s really managed that extremely well,” says Michael Smith, who covers college athletics for the national Sports Business Journal.
But Smith says it’s more than just about buildings. Jurich’s hires are just as important. Those have included Pitino, women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz, football coach Strong and men’s soccer coach Ken Lolla, who led the Cardinals to the NCAA championship game three years ago.
The financial windfalls from those sports have led to new or expanded facilities across the campus and the Cards’ downtown arena.
Jurich’s colleagues say he has brought a “think big” attitude to the Louisville campus, and at a press conference last year marking his 15th anniversary on the job, Jurich said he’s tried to surround himself with like-minded people.
“You walk through our hallways, you see people bouncing off the walls. That’s good. I like to be able to try to rein people in instead of trying to create an energy. If you have to create an energy, you got the wrong people,” Jurich says.
On Monday night, Pitino became the first coach to win a men’s basketball national title at two different schools. The first one came at the University of Kentucky, the state’s much larger flagship university, in 1996. One of Pitino’s predecessors there once referred to Louisville’s basketball team as “little brother.” Jurich says it’s a moniker he embraces today.
“I want to be little brother. I want to be Avis. You know, I want it to be that ‘we try harder’ atmosphere. I want that around our department. I want people hungry for that,” Jurich says. “But my ultimate goal is, I want little brother to be 6-[foot]-4, 285 [pounds]. And that’s what I think we’ve been able to do.”
The University of Louisville will soon have new challenges. The school is joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, where the Cards will play the likes of Duke and North Carolina in basketball, and Florida State in football. On Tuesday night, the women’s basketball team plays Connecticut in New Orleans.