When he’s announcing a contract extension for one of his coaches, Tom Jurich often says he likes to judge people on how they handle adversity. The University of Louisville athletic director has been quite adept at negotiating through tough times himself lately.
At the Bobby Petrino press conference, Jurich said he was most impressed with how Petrino handled himself when his team was 0-3 at the beginning of the 2015 season.
“We were winless and the ship could have gone in a much different direction,” said Jurich. “Bobby kept everybody together, kept the kids’ heads raised up high, with great attitudes, and we finished very strong, beating Texas A&M in that bowl game. I really look to evaluate people when the chips are down.”
Like when there seems to be a dark cloud hovering over Belknap Campus for a while now. A time that creates uncertainty on many fronts, that would not surprisingly pose a severe test of loyalty from an individual as highly respected as Tom Jurich nationally.
The local newspaper, knowing UofL is popular with its readers, has become predictable lately, posting any and all bad news about UofL on the front page. Issues like a dysfunctional board of trustees. the dumping of one board for another, employee thefts and lawsuits, the NCAA investigation of the basketball program, the state audit of the UofL Foundation, a President who defied the media and was forced to resign, and, most recently, the announcement of IRS investigations.
Good to see Bill Olsen again at the recent Crawford Gym reunion for former University of Louisville basketball players. He was a former player himself and an assistant to Denny Crum, but his most lasting contribution may have been to the UofL football program.
Among the highlights during his tenure as Athletic Director from 1981 to 1997 was the hiring of Howard Schnellenberger, who would serve as head football coach for a decade and thrash Alabama in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl.
Olsen would also launch the effort to obtain an on-campus stadium for the football program, convincing local banker Malcolm Chancey to head the fundraising campaign. More than 4,000 fans pledged nearly $15 million for lifetime seating rights in the initial phase of the stadium fundraising effort in May of 1993.
These were followed by major gifts from Papa John’s, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, the Brown Foundation, Anheuser Busch, Bank One, Kiel Brothers Oil Inc./BP, and United Parcel Service. Significant contributions also came from McDonald’s, Pepsi Cola, Dr. Ben Reid, Kentucky Kingdom and the City of Louisville and Jefferson County. The only assistance from the state came in the form of a land swap for adjacent acreage.
His primary challenge upon accepting the post was just keeping football viable. The basketball program was at its zenith, having captured national championships in 1980 and 1986. When he became AD, football tickets sold for $3 each. Attendance was about 15,000 per game. His goal was to amp up the football program in a big way.
“The only games we ever made money were those against Western Kentucky, and we didn’t play them every year,” he says. “We were facing some significant challenges.”
Birth of Tailgating at UofL
He recalled that Tommy Carroll, former president of the University of Louisville Associates, conceived the idea of tailgating. A marketing committee was created by Charlie Herd, of the Chamber of Commerce. Among the members were Maury Buchart, then Vice President of Marketing at the Courier-Journal, Bob Goetz, also of the CJ, and Mike Brown, of Pepsi.
“The marketing committee suggested that we start promoting the tailgating concept, making them social events as well,” said Olsen. “Many other schools were tailgating but we had just never done it.”
The committee urged Chamber businesses to get involved. Among them was WHAS Radio. Wayne Perkey, Milton Metz and other station celebrities manned a tailgating area, selling sandwiches and cold drinks for 84 cents. U of L also encouraged the cheerleaders and Lady Birds to mingle with crowd and got the band to march through the crowd around old Fairgrounds Stadium. Many groups of friends and families quickly gravitated to the idea of food fests, and it ballooned from there.
“We also put up billboards,” he says. “The images on the first billboard consisted only of a leaf falling on a football. The theme was ‘Six Super Saturdays.’ We stayed away from the inferior product on the field and focused on the atmosphere surrounding the game.”
“Tailgating just continued to grow. People loved it. Some of them enjoyed it so much they never went into the stadium for the game. We became one of the best tailgating schools in the country.”
Football attendance had grown to between 28,000 – 30,000 in the years when Olsen retired in 1997, providing a foundation for even more phenomenal growth under Tom Jurich, his predecessor.
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Tommy Carroll, mentioned above, passed away this week at the age of 93. He was a member of the UofL Athletic Hall of Fame, having played football, baseball and track. He was also honored with the Hickman-Camp Award for his support and volunteerism.
Appropriate that the backdrop to a press conference announcing a big raise and contract extension for Dan McDonnell would be a blowup of a happy University of Louisville baseball player.
A day after Tom Jurich announced that he would fight any effort by the University of Texas to lure McDonnell away from UofL, the vice president of athletics was announcing a new $1 million salary and a 10-year contract for the Louisville baseball coach.
The background photo just happened to be John Dao, a co-captain of the 2009 UofL baseball team which came within two wins of making it to a second College World Series. Appropriate that Dao is in a celebratory mood because McDonnell evokes that kind of support from current and former players.
“If there’s a better coach out there than Dan McDonnell in the baseball world, I have not seen him,” said Jurich. “His players are always excited, they always come to win. He instills his own confidence in them.”
Under McDonnell, who is 453-189 in 10 seasons at the helm, UofL has won seven regular season conference championships. including back-to-back ACC titles, and been to three College World Series.
“He loves winning, he’s averaged over 45 wins over the last 10 years,” Jurich continued. “But what I think what he’s done for those young men is more important than any of those wins or any of those world series’ trips. He’s very thankful, he’s very spiritual and he knows exactly what he wants. He’s just a great coach and an exceptional leader of young men.”
McDonnell said Jurich is always two steps ahead of him, anticipating the program’s needs and encouraging his coaches to aim high.
“You gotta have players,” said McDonnell. “Baseball is a players’ game. I can’t call a fancy offensive scheme, I can’t call a double pick, I can’t call an option or a screen pass. You hand the ball to the pitcher and say go get ’em … We don’t have a lot of signs, or make a lot of calls during the game. We trust our kids, we pat ’em on the rear and say play hard. And that formula has worked.”
McDonnell is believed to be among the top three highest paid college baseball coaches.
The best news in a few weeks for University of Louisville fans is that Tom Jurich remains aggressive and totally committed.
With all the noxious fumes emanating from the basketball scandal and the attacks on President Jim Ramsey, the University of Louisville’s athletic director had been quiet for a while. Publicly, anyway. But he has obviously been busy behind the scenes.
Jurich broke the silence on Thursday, announcing a new seven-year contract extension for head football coach Bobby Petrino worth $30.625 million and averaging $4.375 million per season. He also updated fans on the $55 million expansion plan for Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, reporting that almost $20 million has been raised, suggesting the stadium could possibly be completed in time for the 2018 season.
He obviously recognizes the importance of a successful football program to the university’s overall image, and will continue to be aggressive in ensuring that UofL will be a contender, not only in the Atlantic Coast Conference but on the national scene as well.
UofL’s athletic program has come a long way since the late Harry Jones was able to convince Jurich to come to Louisville in 1997. Were it not for Jones’ persistence — TJ turned him down four or five times — Jurich would still be out west. Colorado State, no doubt, would be in the Power 5 conference, celebrating numerous expansions and titles, instead of the obscurity the Mountain West Conference.
All of the turbulence engulfing UofL the past several months has had to have an effect on Jurich. Two of his closest associates — Jim Ramsey and Rick Pitino — have been under constant attack. If ever there was a time for him to consider other options, no one would have blamed him if he had chosen to do so. He had to hurt personally by the sex scandal within the basketball program and mystified at the illogical attacks on a school administrator who has done wonders for the university, rivaling what Tom has done within the athletic program.
One also has to believe that he remains as privately supportive of Ramsey as he is publicly of his basketball coach.
Back in February, however, Jurich dismissed speculation that he had any interest in a vacancy at the University of Southern California, one of the most prestigious jobs in college athletics. “People say what they want because I’m from there . . . I’m staying right where I am,” he told a local TV station.
There will always be speculation in sports, but one has every reason to believe Jurich when he says he loves the University of Louisville, calling his current position the best job in college athletics. He has made possible some tremendous highs for the school while experiencing more than his share of extreme lows at the university.
Tom Jurich obviously has even bigger plans for the university.
Looking down the road, navigating that collision course.
The University of Louisville Athletic Association has entered into discussions with football coach Bobby Petrino’s to extend his contract on a long-term basis. Terms are being negotiated by the attorneys, but UofL fans are eager to have Petrino around as long as possible.
Petrino signed a six-year contract with an annual $3 million salary in 2014. Since then, he has had two stellar seasons, including a 9-4 finish in his first year and an 8-5 mark last year.
“He’s exceeded all my expectations when we brought him back. I knew he had a difficult proposition in front of him – certainly not from a talent standpoint – when he got here, but moving into a new league was a big upgrade for us.
“I’m very pleased with the direction we’re going, and I think we’re really poised for a great future with him.”
The Cardinals have high expectations on the heels of last year’s 8-5 season and the Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M. Louisville has been included in numerous preseason top 25 forecasts. However, the most backed teams don’t always win, raising the possibility of UofL making it into the playoffs.
Again next season, the toughest two opponents in the Atlantic Coast Conference are included among the first five games – Florida State on Sept. 17 and Clemson on Oct. 1st. They, along with Houston, are considered national contenders.
“We have six teams who played in bowl games last season and three teams that finished the year ranked in the top 25,” said Petrino in a statement to the press.
He welcomes the challenges, however. “We have a lot of work to do before we start playing games, but with an experienced team returning, they understand the challenges ahead of them and know what preparation is needed to be a successful football team.”
Louisville will kickoff the 2016 season against Charlotte on Sept. 1 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.