I thought I would have more fun writing this piece. I thought that writing the obituary for a rival program would be fun. It’s been anything but fun. This week, the University of Louisville was forced to dismiss its Athletic Director, Tom Jurich, and its head men’s basketball coach, Rick Pitino. After 20 and 16 years, respectively, both men found out that there’s an end to all the goodwill from the fans and citizens of the University of Louisville. Once the FBI is involved and is investigating you, things quickly become a “gots to go” situation.
I grew up in the city of Louisville. I was a Cardinals fan. My parents had season basketball and football tickets and some of the best memories of my youth took place in Freedom Hall and at old Cardinal Stadium. My parents earned degrees at UL and my room was decorated in red and black. And even after I started college at UK and made the choice to join the Big Blue Nation, I never could go all in on the Louisville hate. Too many of my friends and family, too many good people I know, are diehard Card fans. And for them, my heart breaks. They deserve better than to see their beloved school once again drug through the mud, and made to be a national punchline.
I’ve said before that when you’re a fan of a sports team, particularly at the college level, you put a lot of faith in strangers. All fans are living in a glass house, waiting to see their school’s name on ESPN’s bottom crawl. We’re all a bad decision away from a coach or an eager booster or some 18-year kid away from having our hearts ripped out. We assume the people that wear our school colors are doing the right things, but we never know. Just as Kentucky fans aren’t bad people because Eddie Sutton ran afoul of the NCAA or Indiana fans because of Kelvin Sampson, Louisville fans aren’t bad people because they put their faith in the leaders of their athletic program. To think or believe otherwise isn’t fair to anyone.
The University of Louisville (and the NCAA) should take this time to re-evaluate itself. For the foreseeable future, the men’s basketball program won’t be very good. And with Jurich gone, it’s safe to assume that the lofty status of other programs might also be in jeopardy. It’s time for UL to structure itself so this type of situation doesn’t happen again. The athletic director cannot be the most powerful person on campus. Small situations must be addressed in a fair, but firm manner so that big embarrassing situations can be avoided. There’s no doubt that it’s going to be a long and difficult process to get back to the level that the Cardinals enjoyed across all sports, but they can do it. UL fans are fiercely loyal and I feel they will back whatever changes are necessary to help the Cards.
As a fan of the University of Kentucky, it’s hard not to take pleasure in the downfall of the Cards, particularly with the former Wildcat head man, Rick Pitino. I live in Louisville. I work with Cardinal fans. I interact on social media with fans. And I’d say most, but certainly not all, have, at one time or another, referenced John Calipari and/or Kentucky being dirty. I’ve heard “PayPal Cal.” I’ve heard that the Final Four banners should be “put up with velcro.” And it seemed like everybody knew the ins and outs of Cal’s vacated Final Fours at UMass and Memphis. When UK hired Calipari in 2009, most UL fans assumed it was only a matter of time before he did the same thing to Kentucky.
As it sits right now, that hasn’t come to pass. By the time you’re reading this, Kentucky could very well be implicated in some sort of NCAA or FBI sting. I’ve already stated that we’re all living in glass houses. Right now, however, Pitino and UL now have three (3) hugely embarrassing scandals to Cal and UK’s zero (0). Right now, the whispers of Calipari being dirty are just that, whispers. We have, through Pitino’s extortion case, the NCAA all but confirming the details around Hooker-gate and FBI wiretaps concrete evidence of what’s been going on in Louisville. While most of the college basketball world hopes Calipari is dirty, right now, he’s squeaky clean. And that could change. I hope it doesn’t, but as a fan we never know.
I don’t think we’ve ever seen a story like Rick Pitino, even in fiction. He came to Lexington in 1989 to pull the program from the brink of the NCAA death penalty and return it to its rightful place at the top of college basketball world, winning the 1996 National Championship. He arrived in Louisville in 2001 and brought the Cardinals the 2013 NCAA title, becoming the only coach to win a title at two places. After all those wins, all the excitement that he brought to two of the biggest fan bases in the country, where does he go? Where does Rick Pitino become a cuddly legend, like Denny Crum and Joe B. Hall? Will he be welcomed back when the 2013 Cardinals hold a reunion? Despite his name being in the rafters, does he ever get welcomed back in Rupp Arena?
There are no winners here, just losers. In the FBI investigation, there are the kids that are getting exploited by adults and there are fans of the University of Louisville that have yet another scandal to help themselves through. There are Kentucky fans that can take a little bit of glee in the downfall of Little Brother, but they’d be lying if they didn’t admit that they’re concerned as well about the Wildcat (you’d really be a fool not to be). Sports and money are two things that make sane people act crazy and when they meet, you get an all-time great coach that gets fired and mocked and turned into a pariah. As the kids say, life comes at you very fast.