NEW ORLEANS — Tom Jurich’s voice hesitated for a fraction of a second.
It was two days after Louisville had been invited to the Sugar Bowl, Cardinals’ coach Charlie Strong was reportedly considering an offer to jump to Tennessee and Jurich, Louisville’s athletic director, had been asked what he thought his school’s chances of keeping Strong were.
“Well,” Jurich said. “I know we’ll do our best.
“We just have to see.”
It was a rare moment of less-than-complete confidence from the man who the week before had steered Louisville from the Big East to the ACC, a crowning moment for the man whose leadership had taken the Cardinals into the upper realm of success.
And, in the end, Jurich’s best at keeping his coach proved to be good enough.
By that evening, Strong had agreed to stay, in large part because Jurich had promised to beat any offer. (Tennessee’s bid was supposedly $3.4 million.)
But it was just as much because of the loyalty Strong felt toward Jurich, who had made him a head coach for the first time three years ago and who had given him a contract extension early in his second season, when Strong’s record was 9-10.
“Tom Jurich is the best athletic director in the country,” said Strong, whose team meets Florida on Wednesday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. “When you have a chance to work for a man who is willing to give you anything you ask for, then that’s something I could never walk away from.”
Jurich, who has been at Louisville since 1997, tends to have that effect on people.
Coming to a school best known for its basketball — and even that was in decline when he arrived — Jurich has managed to build the athletic program at an urban, state-supported school which was struggling to compete in Conference USA at the time to one the ACC felt compelled to grab before the Big 12 came coming.
How rare is that? Pittsburgh, which managed to beat Louisville out of the Big East and into the ACC by a year, is the only other comparable example, and that school has a much stronger academic rating.
“What Tom has accomplished is a real credit to him,” said Jeremy Foley, Jurich’s Florida counterpart. “He’s gotten the people of Louisville and fans of the Cardinals everywhere to believe they can have one of the best athletic departments in America.”
Added Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan, “Tom’s a competitor. He doesn’t like to lose.”
Constructing facilities has been a big component in Jurich’s success.
Papa John’s Stadium was nearing completion when Jurich was hired and has since been expanded by 10,000 seats to 52,000 with a $40 million academic support center at one end of the stadium is in the works.
There’s more than $100 million in other on-campus facilities that include showcase soccer, track, field hockey and softball stadiums.
Plus, the school spearheaded the fundraising for the $238 million downtown KFC Yum! Center on the banks of the Ohio River where sellout crowds of 22,000 routinely fill the Cardinal-themed facility for Louisville basketball.
“Those facilities are game-changers,” said Karl Schmitt, executive director of the Louisville Sports Commission. “It sets U of L apart from a lot of other universities of their size.”
The other component has been a knack for hiring able coaches.
Jurich’s major coup was luring Rick Pitino back to the college level in 2001 and then keeping him at the school. The success may not have been what some envisioned, but the Cardinals reached the Final Four in New Orleans earlier this year.
The commitment has paid off in other sports as well as Louisville’s 50 Big East conference championships since entering the league in 2005 are second only to Notre Dame’s 74.
Strong corporate support helped, as did the fact that there are no major pro franchises in Louisville. Proponents for an NBA franchise for the city that labels itself “The Best College Sports Town in America” claim the university has worked against it.
With the Big East losing its BCS automatic qualifier status when the new format begins at 2014 and the league reeling from the losses of Pitt, Syracuse, Rutgers and Notre Dame (a Big East member in all sports but football), the stakes were high.
“I felt at time I had the burden of the entire community on my shoulders,” Jurich said. “I knew people were counting on me to come through, and I didn’t want to let them down.”
Still, Louisville’s gaining ACC membership in a time of unpredictable realignment was considered a major upset.
Connecticut, in a larger TV market and with a better academic reputation, was seen as the favorite to replace Maryland after that school had received a surprise invitation to the Big Ten.
On the field, the Huskies have been stronger in men’s basketball, are a women’s basketball super power and even have three Big East titles to Louisville’s two and this year beat the Cardinals 23-20.
“We were definitely the underdogs,” Jurich said. “People had UConn not penciled in, but penned it.”
However, Jurich, who is as well connected as anyone in the business, got an early tip on Maryland’s move, which enabled him to get the jump on UConn. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a Louisville graduate, also lobbied hard for the Cardinals.
Louisville had thick spiral notebooks prepared the year before during the school’s bid to join the Big 12. UConn sent out pamphlets.
And, in the end, Louisville prevailed.
“We felt it was that what the ACC needed most was to add the most exciting sports program that we could,” said North Carolina Chancellor Holden Thorp, chairman of the ACC Council of Presidents, in making the announcement.
Longtime Louisville columnist Rick Bozich said those who knew Jurich and his master vision should not have been surprised.
“Tom Jurich didn’t build and upgrade those facilities on the Louisville campus to be left behind,” he wrote.
“He hasn’t chased all of those nationally recognized coaches in every sport to be told, ‘No.’
“He didn’t agree to move the U of L basketball program to that elegant new arena by the Ohio River to be told that is was time of his school to resume scheduling East Carolina and Tulane.”
And just being competitive when the school makes the upgrade to the ACC apparently isn’t enough for Jurich.
“I think everybody looks at us as a long shot,” he said on the day the move to the ACC was announced. “And we’re not an underdog.
“I truly believe now that this is a top-10 job in the country. Somebody debate that with me please.”
As of yet, there have been no takers.