I remember it like it was yesterday. I was heading up I-65 north coming around the corner just past the old Cardinal Stadium. I had made that turn thousands of times before, but that morning I noticed something new. The faces of many beloved Louisville Cardinals were now adorning the building next to the famous “University of Louisville” silos. While trying to avoid ramming my car into the center barrier or the 18 wheeler beside me, I was able to catch a glimpse of the many athletes I had been a fan of over the course of the previous few years. The message “Welcome To The Ville” was spelled out prominently for all to see. I thought it was impressive. It was a nice way to showcase the University and some of its athletes. As I was coming out of the turn I glanced back again for one more look and noticed the slogan spread across the bottom…”The Best College Sports Town in America”. Oh boy.
When this campaign was launched in 2003 the University received some harsh criticism from some and downright hate from others. “How dare you consider yourself the best sports town?!” Reporters from across the country ridiculed the University for its bold statement and repeatedly mocked the state of the program while comparing it others such as Madison, Ann Arbor, Chapel Hill and even Bloomington right up the road. While some disapproval from the national scene could be anticipated I think the most surprising response came from our own local media who jumped right in and joined the verbal lynch mob. While Pat Forde is the most highly criticized, there were others who also scoffed at the thought of Louisville considering itself elite. The point in the Forde article that seemed to sting the most was when he pointed out that Louisville very well may not be the best “Ville” in college sports, much less the best town overall. His submission of Gainesville and what the Florida Gators had recently accomplished was hard to dispute. The Gators had a rising men’s basketball program under Billy Donovan including a Final Four in 1994. The women’s basketball program was taking off, baseball was an annual threat to be a College World Series participant and they still played a little football down there, grabbing a title in 1996. While Tom Jurich had made some things happen over the last few years there was little to argue in terms of the Universities courageous statement. There was one man who felt he could make that argument though. Rick Pitino. Coach Pitino responded to Pat Forde with the opinion that Pat had missed the driving purpose of the campaign. He told the Courier Journal that “The finish line is not what we’re after, but the future”. Oh Rick, how right you were…
The college landscape has changed quite a bit since 2003. Some teams have emerged from what seems like out of nowhere in various sports while other perennial powers have gone through a bit of a dead period. These things happen. Programs rise and fall all the time. While no one can predict how future events might play out, it is fairly easy to create a snapshot of current events and reflect on where the University of Louisville currently sits since this slogan was printed. Leaving Conference USA, Louisville positioned itself among one of the best conferences in the nation in 2005 joining the Big East, a true conference powerhouse in basketball, baseball and soccer among others. As times have changed and the Big East started to dissolve, Tom and others continued to advance the University and joined the ACC, creating a new super conference in all athletic fields as well as a huge boost in academic prominence. While others may recap our progression much better than I could, I can certainly hit the high points that I and thousands of other Cards fans probably know off hand. To start, since 2003 the men’s basketball program has been to three Final Fours, won multiple regular season conference championships and conference tournaments and just capped off 2013 with a National Championship. The women’s basketball program has played for two National championships, been to two Final Fours and has won numerous conference accolades. The football program has won several conference championships, been to two BCS bowls, winning both, and has won 4 total bowl games. The baseball team has been to a College World Series, hosted Super Regional’s, regionals and won the conference title. The men’s soccer team has played for a National Championship, hosted regional games and won conference championships. Softball, swimming, diving, lacrosse, cheerleading, dance team…the list of accomplishments goes on and on.
While any topic such as this will forever be debatable, it is improbable that any such discussion with no longer include the city of Louisville. I know right now, at this very moment, it’s probably been easier to be a Louisville fan than other time in the history of the University. But others like me, who have lived here for over thirty years, remember the times it wasn’t so easy. Free tickets to football games when you fill up your car, scheduling basketball games around tractor pulls, playing baseball on “carpet” installed in the eighties…the times have definitely changed.
Within the last month my wife and I found out that work will require us to move from the city of Louisville. My passion for the University won’t change and my connection to the city will remain forever. As we move on to the next stage of our lives I’m sure the question will be asked of me frequently “where are you from?” Just know that while “Louisville” may be the clear and concise response, it will, without hesitation, be followed by “the best college sports town in America”.