By Zach McCrite
It never ends.
Every month, I am given carte blanche to write about whatever I want to write about in this space. My goal, obviously, is to write about what people in the community want to read about when they open a Kentuckiana-based sports magazine.
And every month, seemingly, here I am, finding myself writing more about the ongoing sagas (plural) that are going on at the University of Louisville.
Some of you may be as fatigued by my writings in this space as Cardinal fans are by the ostensibly-boundless stories portraying their favorite school, former athletic director and former basketball coach in a negative light – in part by their own actions.
Since I last penned a column for this space, those stories continued.
It can be fatiguing for fans and writers alike. But, it’s the story.
Courier Journal (formerly known as The Courier-Journal) and ESPN released exhaustive stories that focused on Tom Jurich, the much celebrated, much debated, fired AD at UofL. I was one of a handful of local media members interviewed in Tim Sullivan’s Courier Journal article about Jurich’s business tactics.
I could’ve used this space to give my loyal readers the inside scoop before anyone else got it. In fact, I should have.
But, up until last month, I had vowed to never speak of it publicly. There were numerous reasons I never did up until recently. First, shortly after the meeting, I felt like Jurich was doing what he felt he had to do in helping keep me from a potential job opening. After sulking in my new reality as it pertained to missing out on a great opportunity, I realized it was business. It affected me massively, but that was his prerogative. I just didn’t know he had that power at the time.
And, if we’re being real, there was a part of me that was proud of it. And it was newfound pride. I was proud that, before the age of 30, Jurich thought I carried a big enough stick in the market to sway public opinion—an opinion he apparently with which he did not agree. Up until that point, I never thought that much of my own ability. Jurich considered me credible.
But, the much more important reason I never went public with this story, a story that dates back over seven years ago now, is this: had I gone public, listeners would take every opinion I had from that point forward and would perceive that I had a bias against UofL athletics that simply did not exist.
I was determined not to let it dictate my opinion on matters of which listeners turned on the radio to hear me. I had gained the trust of many listeners in the area. In the media business, there is nothing more valuable than your listeners’ trust. Why would I want to betray that by telling a story that would make people think I am now anti-UofL even though I wasn’t?
Sure, people inside the media knew of my run-ins (plural, I got calls from his department many times over the years along with many other media members) with the University of Louisville and Jurich, in particular. But, I always thought it would look like sour grapes if I ever told the story publicly.
AN EXAMPLE OF JURICH’S POWER OVER LOCAL MEDIA
Here’s what happened: I met with Jurich in his office after hearing he was, perhaps, being a roadblock to a job I thought I already had – new afternoon show co-host on WKRD 790 AM back in 2010. I was accused by Jurich, mainly, of being too critical of Steve Kragthorpe, the coach who had, by that time, already been fired by Tom, himself.
My basic rebuttal was that it was basically impossible not to be critical since, you know, Kragthorpe took a program fresh off an Orange Bowl victory and promptly went 15-21 in three years as head coach of the Cardinals including the most embarrassing loss I, to this day, have ever seen at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, a 38-35 defeat to Syracuse. At that time, that was the biggest upset, according to Vegas sports books, in college football history. Louisville was a 39.5-point favorite that day. How could I not be critical?
“Besides, Tom,” I recall asking him, “you’re firing of Steve validates my criticisms of him, does it not?” Jurich responded by implying that I helped shape the public narrative of a coach that didn’t deserve it. Whatever.
After more sparring, I walked out of that meeting knowing that I wasn’t going to be the host of a show I had already been tabbed by radio station management to co-host.
It was my first real sniff of how much power Jurich had when it came to local media coverage. Of course, if you were a diehard, Louisville-never-needs-to-be-criticized-because-I-simply-love-them-that-much sort of Cardinal fan, Tom loved you. That meant he didn’t love me. Oh well.
In the interest of fairness, Jurich’s side of this story is that he doesn’t remember this meeting.
And, for the record, I don’t consider Tom being a ‘bully’ to me. I guess it was just his prerogative to not have me on airwaves for which he had at least some level of control. I was just a 29-year-old who was too dumb to understand that this is how it works in some markets where the media entity has to make nice with one of their highest-paying customers or else face the consequences.
Jurich and I were always respectful of each other in public after that – shaking hands when we saw each other. But, Jurich made his feelings about me well known just in that simple handshake. Either that, or he regularly shakes hands with the strength of a wet newspaper.
Luckily, the people in power at iHeartRadio (which was Clear Channel at the time), while wanting to keep their client (Jurich) happy, also felt me valuable enough to keep me around.
And thanks to them and Matt Jones, who was starting up a new radio show on a different station in the same building, I was still able to secure a radio gig without much downtime, becoming Matt’s first partner on “Kentucky Sports Radio.” Not long after that, I was tabbed as a radio host for ESPN St. Louis.
In hindsight, it was a blessing.
I only put that story here in the interest of giving you my version of what went down in more detail than what was penned in the Courier Journal story. And my story is tame compared to others that have had less-than-favorable run-ins with the guy who many thought was the most powerful man in the city of Louisville for the better part of two decades.
JURICH’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS GO UNMATCHED
That, however, does not preclude me from applauding Jurich on many fronts.
He was undoubtedly the head man in turning Floyd Street from a road known for its ugly silos to a road full of beautiful sports-hosting facilities worth well into the nine-figures in total.
He also was aware before many others in his position all over the country, that women’s sports not only mattered in the grand scope of college athletics, but he was also successful in making it known to companies who donated to such endeavors that it was the “long game” to which they would see their return on investment.
The fired athletic director also gets a bad rap for how he handled the initial negotiations in the lease that secured UofL as the anchor tenant at the KFC Yum Center. The deal he helped negotiate for the university, according to ESPN, meant UofL kept “88 percent of premium seat licensing, 97 percent of suite sales, all program revenue and half of concessions.”
This was a deal to which both the city and the university agreed. A sweetheart deal. And isn’t that what you’d want if you had a negotiator working a lease for you? That’s what Jurich did for the University of Louisville.
Where Jurich misses is claiming in the same ESPN story that Louisville “took all the risk.”
Please. Where is that risk? Were you afraid that the three percent of suite sales you had to give away was going to cripple your program?
I also don’t blame him for being, at the very least, a massive obstacle for the city of Louisville ever being home to an NBA team. Jurich’s sweetheart deal with the KFC Yum Center came with priorities that effectively left the NBA zero options to place a team in Louisville.
According to the original lease, the University of Louisville’s men’s basketball programs had control of the KFC Yum Center not only on days of home basketball games, but also on the day before and the day after each game.
In other words, for every UofL game at “The Bucket,” UofL had reserved the arena for three days. That meant that there was absolutely no way that an NBA team could effectively schedule 41 home games at the KFC Yum Center.
Access denied. A win for Jurich.
Jurich and the school both wanted to keep an NBA team from dipping their proverbial hands in the UofL cookie jar full of donors and sponsors that Jurich and his team had filled up to the brim.
And, again, who can blame Jurich for making that deal. He was hired to fill up that once-empty cookie jar. And keep it full.
There was so much money falling out of that cookie jar thanks to Jurich, in fact, that former president James Ramsey was sliding that money, seemingly under the table, to Jurich in deals that were probably less than forthcoming to the taxpaying public.
Of course, that story is child’s play compared to all the other shady dealing’s the former school president had, which all came to light when an audit of the university’s finances became public earlier this year.
JURICH’S FIRING IS STILL JUSTIFIED
Tom’s contract reads like that of a made mafia man. That is, if the mafia ever put anything in writing.
Jurich’s contract leaves the university with basically no route to not pay him at least a very hefty portion of his remaining contract – a sign of the lockstep in which Jurich and Ramsey regularly danced.
The contract addendum, agreed upon in 2011, says UofL has to pay Jurich a full year’s salary even if he’s fired “for cause.” Translation: It’s more than likely going to be a seven-figure payday for Jurich. Just for being fired.
I bet if you look close, you can still see the marks Ramsey left on Jurich’s back and vice versa. They scratched each other’s backs constantly, it seemed.
That’s not Tom’s fault. In fact, I applaud him for getting that installed as part of his contract. Some might even say he earned it.
But that doesn’t mean his firing wasn’t justified.
The new Board of Trustees at the University of Louisville, led in part by one of the university’s biggest donors and supporters, Papa John Schnatter, put into place checks and balances that didn’t appear to be in place before their arrival.
Part of those checks and balances included being held accountable for what employees underneath your jurisdiction may have done to harm the school’s financial wellbeing and image.
In other words, a good portion of the reason Pitino was fired – hiring people who didn’t have the university’s best interests at heart – is one of the main reasons Jurich was fired as well. He hired Pitino and is now on the hook for having, potentially, two major NCAA violations happen under his watch.
This is where Jurich’s leadership seemed to cease. As scandals mounted and things seemed to be spiraling out of control at UofL, plenty of opportunities arose for Jurich, the usually-unabashed leader, to take over a contentious press conference or a rocky board meeting.
Instead, Jurich took a back seat, leaving people like Ramsey, Postel, Pitino or contracted NCAA compliance expert Chuck Smrt to take the lead role, interjecting only when asked a specific question and, even then, sharing only brief responses, mostly.
But hey, if it was a press conference about a Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium expansion update or UofL’s now-ill-timed announcement of a $160 million apparel deal with the school, there was Jurich, front and center, salivating over a hot microphone, accepting rounds of applause and appreciation.
And, make no mistake, the fearless leader should be there telling us all about the good times.
The fearless leader should also be front and center when the university is in turmoil. The fans should have heard from him in those times before anyone else. They needed to.
Regardless, there are many out there who believe that Jurich has done nothing wrong, including many of the same media members who sold out to be mouthpieces for the university in exchange for job security.
Nevertheless, all the positive things that Jurich accomplished at the University of Louisville should, over time, supercede the damage he was, at best, complacent in helping prevent.
And I think they will. Down the road, when time heals the wounds, they’ll build a statue of him. And they should.
The constant reminder of Jurich’s footprint on this university is all up and down Floyd Street.
It never ends.
NEVERTHELESS, ALL THE POSITIVE THINGS THAT JURICH ACCOMPLISHED AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LOUISVILLE SHOULD, OVER TIME, SUPERCEDE THE DAMAGE HE WAS, AT BEST, COMPLACENT IN HELPING PREVENT. AND I THINK THEY WILL. DOWN THE ROAD, WHEN TIME HEALS THE WOUNDS, THEY’LL BUILD A STATUE OF HIM. AND THEY SHOULD.
Want to find Zach on Twitter? Just follow @BigEZ.