Cardinals' program flying high with newly minted CWS appearance
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Today's bar bet for college sports fans: Name the only two schools in the country to play in the College World Series, a BCS bowl game and the Final Four in the last three seasons.
One is obvious: Florida, which last week extended its winning streak over the rest of mankind when basketball coach Billy Donovan never-minded the NBA and returned to Gainesville. The Gators made the CWS championship series in 2005, the Final Four in '06 and '07, and the BCS in '07 as well.
The other school completed the trifecta Sunday -- and in the process completed arguably the most remarkable decade of all-around progress in the modern era of college sports. That would be Louisville, which has followed a Final Four trip in 2005 with the first BCS game in school history in January and now the first CWS berth after pummeling Oklahoma State in the super regional.
Florida you might expect. The athletic budget is $80 million, SEC membership has its privileges, and the recruiting backyard is an embarrassment of riches.
Louisville? Nobody could have expected this. Not with a budget half of Florida's, with a medium-sized recruiting base, with Midwestern weather and with a paucity of broad-based tradition.
Certainly nobody foresaw it in 1997, when the school hired Tom Jurich to fix an athletic program that had exactly one thing going for it -- men's basketball, and even that glory was fading -- and a whole lot of problems.
Back then, the Cardinals were little more than a high-maintenance mid-major school. They were members of Conference USA, and their arrogance in dealing with fellow league schools, after years of running roughshod over the old Metro Conference, nearly led to their expulsion. It took a mediation effort by then-commissioner Mike Slive to derail that movement, making Slive an often-overlooked contributor to this renaissance.
"I remember going to that first league meeting, and there weren't a lot of open arms for me," Jurich recalled. "I had a target on my forehead, and deservedly so. The University of Louisville was the bully before, and always had things their own way. In a conference, you can't always have things your way."
In real terms, very little was going Louisville's way. The football program was backsliding after patriarch Howard Schnellenberger left for Oklahoma, slipping to 1-10 in 1997. The basketball program was creaking toward irrelevance in the final years under Denny Crum, finding its way onto NCAA probation twice. Academics were shaky, and the non-revenue sports were largely a wreck -- out of Title IX compliance and out of step competitively.
Today the Cardinals are the can-do model for the rest of the nation to envy and emulate. They have proven that with the right mix of administrative vision, brilliant coaching hires, aggressive talent procurement and really good timing, anything is possible. They have proven that a one-trick, urban public school can reinvent itself as a national all-sports heavyweight -- and do it in a decade or less.
In that time, the Cardinals upgraded their conference affiliation to the Big East, upgraded their caliber of coaches, upgraded the facilities for every sport and upgraded their competitiveness across the board as well.
Getting into the Big East was paramount, and that never would have happened without Jurich's football vision. The new AD got one stroke of luck when he walked in the door 10 years ago -- a new football stadium was on the way, set to open in 1998, freeing the Cardinals from a decaying Triple-A baseball park. Jurich took care of the rest, firing Ron Cooper and replacing him with little-known cowboy John L. Smith, who merely took the Cardinals to bowl games each of his five years on the job.
When Smith jumped to the Big Ten (Michigan State), Jurich was ready within minutes to hire a replacement who upgraded the program another level. Bobby Petrino won 43 games in four years, including that breakthrough BCS victory in the Orange Bowl over Wake Forest.
And when Petrino left for the NFL, Jurich again had a rapid-fire replacement in Tulsa's Steve Kragthorpe. He helped talk quarterback Brian Brohm into returning for his senior year, and Mel Kiper's No. 1 draft prospect will lead what should begin the season as a Top 10 team.
The other big piece was engineering the exit of Crum -- amid significant controversy and acrimony -- and replacing him with Rick Pitino. If you're going to force out a beloved Hall of Famer, it's best to replace him with a future Hall of Famer. Pitino got the Cardinals back to the Final Four for the first time since 1986, and his 2007-08 Cards also should start the season in the Top 10.
But the latest accomplishments might have been the greatest. It's not just that Louisville has advanced to the College World Series. Last week it also placed seventh at the NCAA men's outdoor track and field championships, the first top-10 finish in school history.
"Of all the things that have happened, this [baseball] and the track program are the biggest two," Jurich said. "By far. The track team wouldn't have finished third in its own intramural meet before."
In both instances, Jurich went out and found the right coach to improve the product almost overnight. His baseball coach is young Dan McDonnell, a former assistant at Mississippi who Sunday became the first rookie head coach in 27 years to take a team to the CWS. His track and cross country coach is veteran Ron Mann, who built a small-school powerhouse at Northern Arizona.
That's par for the Jurich course. His uncanny string of hires runs throughout the department, which is a big reason Louisville also was an NCAA Tournament team in women's basketball, softball, mens' and women's golf, women's soccer, women's volleyball and men's cross country.
When the baseball results are factored into the final all-sports standings in the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics' competition, the Cards will jump up from their current ranking of 31st -- which already would have represented the highest finish in school history. And Jurich will have further demonstrated why Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal made him its national Athletic Director of the Year earlier this month.
This is hardly the end of the growth curve, though. Plans have been drawn to expand Papa John's Cardinal Stadium from its current capacity of 42,500 to more than 60,000. Ground has been broken on a new, downtown basketball arena that will seat more than 22,000, with the Cardinals as its prime tenant. And with the namesake of the baseball stadium, fast-food restaurant magnate Jim Patterson, in attendance for the breakthrough game Sunday, you can expect expansion there as well.
"I asked him last night and he said, 'Let's go,'" Jurich said. "And he can make it go in a hurry."
Actually, Tom Jurich has made it go in a hurry.
"Ten years ago I knew the foundation we had to build and I knew the strategic plan, but I never saw all of this," he said. "This is a dream come true."
Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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