LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – Maybe I've been overcome by the spirit of the season, or maybe I'm still reeling from the worst University of Louisville football season ever, but today I feel better about the present and future of Cardinal athletics than I have in a long time.
A lot of people deserve credit for cleaning the messes that happened on the watch of former President Jim Ramsey, former athletics director Tom Jurich, and former men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino, but none more than David Grissom, the business leader and philanthropist whom Gov. Matt Bevin appointed chairman of the board of trustees a year or so ago.
Grissom grew up in Louisville and went to its public schools. He earned his undergraduate degree at Centre College and his law degree at UofL. At both, he starred on the track team. Ambitious and focused, he took the fast track to success in both the banking and health-care fields.
Unlike those leaders who want to publicly take the credit for any success their institution may experience, Grissom is a shy person who shuns the media spotlight, preferring to work in the background. This has earned him criticism from, of course, the media. But all he has ever asked is that he be judged by his results.
In his own quiet way, he had much to do with the hiring of President Dr. Neeli Bendaputi, who so far has received high marks from everyone who has met her. He had much to do with removing the “interim” from athletics director Vince Tyra’s title. And Tyra seems to have hit home runs with the hiring of basketball coach Chris Mack from Xavier and football coach Scott Satterfield from Appalachian State.
The bottom line is that UofL now seems to have a stable of coaches who are quality people who believe in Grissom’s vision of pursuing excellence in both athletics and academics. He respects Stanford, Notre Dame, Duke and other such universities who have proved that it’s possible to have winning sports teams without sacrificing academic principles.
Of the high-profile individuals who have been fired during Grissom’s tenure, Jurich was the most controversial. A wondrous fund-raiser, he changed the Belknap campus with all the new sports facilities that now line Floyd Street. He did more than anybody to get UofL into the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Yet he also generated so much personal loyalty that I believe UofL could not have hired the best president possible as long as Jurich was in place. No president wants to come into a job as the second-most powerful person on campus. To his credit, Jurich took his leave – and his $6 million buyout – with more class than acrimony.
Not so for Pitino, who has blamed the offenses committed on his watch on everybody but himself. In both the “Strippergate” scandal and the Adidas payoff scheme uncovered by the FBI, Pitino put all the blame on assistant coaches. Of course, he hasn’t said anything about his sexual affair with Karen Sypher, who was convicted of trying to extort Pitino and sent to prison.
Maybe the departure of Jurich changed football coach Bobby Petrino, and maybe it didn't, but the Petrino who coached the first 10 games of this miserable season was not the same guy who had coached at UofL with great distinction from 2002-2006. His defense gave up at least 50 points in five consecutive games. His offense, upon which he made his reputation, was only slightly better.
Petrino slipped out of town without any explanation about what went so badly wrong. He did not apologize or thank Jurich for giving him a second chance against the wishes of many in the university community. But this was typical. Petrino has never made a graceful exit from any job, except possibly when he left Western Kentucky to return to UofL.
Although Jurich and Pitino both had – a still have – a lot of supporters who are still bitter over their firings, there's no such problem with Petrino. If he had any hardcore supporters, they are impossible to see with the naked eye. The overwhelming feeling seems to be, "Good riddance."
I’ve long felt that of all the good coaches at UofL, the ones who come closest to Grissom’s ideal are women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz and baseball coach Dan McDonnell. They win with class. They do not have king-sized egos. In other words, they are just good people.
And, really, the same can be said for UofL’s other head coaches: Arthur Albiero, swimming; Mark Beckham, women’s tennis; Derek Copeland, women’s rowing; Dale Cowper, track and cross country; Mark Crabtree, men’s golf; Rex Ecarma, men’s tennis; Karen Ferguson-Dayes, women’s soccer; Dani Bushboom Kelly, volleyball; Ken Lolla, men’s soccer; Justine Sowry, field hockey; Scott Teeter, women’s lacrosse; and Courtney Trimble, women’s golf.
From what I’ve seen so far, these coaches now are working with, or for, kindred spirits in Tyra, Mack, and Satterfield. They are tough competitors, but also have values that should reflect well on the university, the city, and the state.
Already Mack has impressed me with his ability to build a team. Before the season, I figured there was no way the Cards could beat UK when they meet on Dec. 29 in the Yum! Center. But now I think it’s going to be a very competitive and entertaining game.
I like the feeling that the house has been cleaned. Whatever investigations or sanctions may come down in the future, they will involve individuals who are no longer with the program. The new team seems determined to just concentrate on mending fences, recruiting quality athletes, and rebuilding enthusiasm and trust among the people who buy the tickets.
So I think UofL athletics are in a very good place. If nobody else will thank David Grissom, I will. He was tough enough and principled enough to do what needed to be done, no matter how much criticism he got from fans and the media. It takes a special kind of person to do that.
We have been waiting to exhale around here for a long time, and now I think we can do it. The Cards are back on track. The members of the UofL community can wish each other a Merry Christmas without the slightest hint of sarcasm or foreboding, and that is quite a gift, indeed.