It took longer than usual, but fall (or at least my most ideal image of it) has fully settled down in Louisville, Kentucky. Now you can put on your favorite worn out hoodie, breathe that crisp refreshing air, and enjoy the vibrant reds and oranges of the leaves, at least before they float gently down to be enjoyably crunched on the sidewalk.
That’s the funny thing about the leaves. The beauty masks decay. Those captivating colors are really a last hurrah as they go down in a blaze of glory. Once the tree shakes them off, it has to deal with being an ugly, desolate grey log for a while. But no one’s worried – spring is coming, rebirth is around the corner, and soon the tree will be more lush and healthy than ever before. Life goes on.
Not to get overly poetic (too late for that), but it’s easy for me to draw comparisons to Louisville sports when I look at the trees. Just think: in 2004, Louisville was the definition of a mid major program. Scheduling football games on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays… whenever was necessary just to get on ESPN. Trying to climb the ladder of Conference USA, and waiting patiently for the realignment lots to be drawn again. No success to speak of in a single sport, not one, other than men’s basketball.
A mere decade later, Louisville joined an elite brand, a historic powerhouse conference – and had the second highest athletic budget in that conference (a fact that still remains true). Every sport was flourishing and experiencing historic success. Applications skyrocketed for UofL – both in quantity and quality. Seemingly no check was too big to be written to keep a winning coach, regardless of sport. Everyone in Louisville athletics was rolling in victories and big paydays. That’s not just a meteoric rise. That’s Icarus flying too close to the sun.
Louisville’s turbo fueled race to prominence was led by a group of ambitious, powerful, successful and, in hindsight, enormously egotistical people. James Ramsey. Rick Pitino. Tom Jurich. Bobby Petrino.
I don’t mean to absolutely condemn or completely praise any of them. Their accomplishments and contributions to the school can be acknowledged along with their faults. But the fact is, one by one; they’ve all fallen off the tree. James Ramsey resigned as school president under a monsoon of scandal that ranged from investigations into the basketball program, to major corruption with the UofL Foundation’s finances, to ill-advised Halloween costumes.
As for Pitino and Jurich… I mean, where to even begin. The details don’t need to be rehashed. We’ve all heard them, and read them, and talked about them, a thousand times over. I’ll just say this: hopefully one day we’ll all be able to look back and just have a hearty laugh at the fact that our championship basketball coach and then-legendary athletic director were fired by an interim board, and an interim school president. And an NCAA investigation was immediately followed by an FBI investigation. And the whole thing actually got so ridiculous there were multiple fan theories about government sabotage being involved.
The roaring success, the loveable teams, the ‘Year of the Cardinal’ dominance – that was the blaze of glory. That was the beauty disguising the rot and decay of the program. Those guys mentioned gave this community some unforgettable memories and moments of greatness – along with wanton corruption and hubris. They’re gone for a reason, and replaced by refreshingly genuine, exquisitely qualified, and by all indications high character people. All, that is, except one.
I don’t know a single fan that isn’t ecstatic about the work of Neeli Bendapudi, Vince Tyra, and Chris Mack thus far. They’ve each shown a face of earnestness, class, and determined commitment to their positions at the University of Louisville. They know this fan base is done with drama and scandal, and just wants to cheer on their beloved Cardinals. They’re a regime we can be proud of – one I trust to restore some stability and optimism to the school and its athletics program. However, one final leaf still needs to drop to complete the fresh restart, and begin a full turn toward the future.
I know it sounds like another “Fire Petrino” tirade, but that’s not the point here. Bobby Petrino’s departure is as inevitable as the changing of the seasons at this point.
Rather, I implore our fan base to be patient, and optimistic. It’s difficult to be optimistic right now. A supernova would feel insecure next to the implosion of Louisville football, and the men’s basketball team projects as bubble-bound again.
But spring is coming. This time next year we will be in full swing of a new era. Fresh faces still at president and AD, new football coaching staff (a more competent one, by default), and a still-new and exciting basketball coach integrating a Top-10 recruiting class.
I understand not everyone will share such optimism. Once Petrino is finally handed his walking papers and a $14,000,000 check, we’ll still have a broken program to rebuild. But it’s going to be done in the context of a whole new era for Louisville. Going into the 2020’s, Louisville will be a wealthy ACC program, with two new and exciting coaches leading the headliner sports. Great coaches like Dan McDonnell, Jeff Walz and Ken Lolla will keep doing their thing, continuing the race to win Louisville’s first non-men’s basketball national title. And presiding over it all will be loveable duo of Bendapudi and Tyra.
I don’t know about you, but I’m excited for it. I’m excited for spring. There’s just one more stubborn leaf to go, fluttering in the wind and wanting a lot of cash.