“When you are going through hell…… keep going.”
Thursday morning the University of Louisville announced that it was going to receive the NCAA Infractions report detailing the punishments that the basketball program would receive. The notice informed us that the press had an opportunity to participate in two separate Q & As both with the NCAA Infractions panel that heard UofL’s case AND the university administration that has been involved since the news broke in October of of 2015.
I finished what I was working on. Strapped on my gear and drove to campus. On the ride over there was a feeling of hope that the Cardinal family could move on from this dark chapter and we could again celebrate the incredible accomplishments of the university. There is a sense not only in athletics, but also on the university side of things that we’d all just like to move on and stand proud of our school.
When I arrived at UofL I chose to park at the studios of ESPN Louisville. It is a bit of a walk to Grawmeyer Hall from there, but it was a walk I had made many times before. Cardinal Town was once Masterson’s where I used to park as a student. I had plenty of time and the weather was perfect so I took my walk down memory lane.
As a graduate of UofL’s Business School I remember where we came from. The sidewalks are mostly the same, there are new buildings, new technologies, nicer amenities. I remembered how UofL KNEW it was bigger athletically than it was credited around the nation at that time. As a student we openly wished ANYONE would play the Cards in Football and I remembered how big of a deal the 2005 Final Four was after a 19 year drought one semester after I graduated. When I was in school it just felt like the beginning of something remarkable was on its way. The Big East called and Conference USA was in the past…. AT LAST we’d finally get some respect. I remember thinking on my walk to Grawmeyer Hall on Thursday about how far we’d come.
Also on my walk I remembered the 2013 National Title Run. Lexington is for the Birds, the North Carolina A&T cheerleaders & Jesse Jackson almost bumping over my laptop on press row. I remembered the Sad Ram from Colorado State and Kentucky fans (who were inexplicably at every UofL game in the NCAA Tournament) hanging a “The Twins Are Coming” Banner from the 2nd level of Rupp Arena. The next week in Indianapolis, I recalled seeing a security guard with a picture of William Wesley (Worldwide Wes) and asking him why he had a picture of him. I snapped a photo of this picture when he told me that security was requested to remove Wesley if he saw him prior to Louisville’s game versus Oregon. The picture went viral and Worldwide Wes was briefly removed from Lucas Oil Stadium. I remembered Kevin Ware’s leg and the emotion that followed vs. Duke…. Good Morning America, David Letterman, Sportscenter…. the works. I remembered the anxiety between the week….. And I remember ATLANTA. Tim Henderson from the corner vs. Wichita. Eating Dinner in the Commerce Club and my Mom, Dad & Sister all having better access to the Georgia Dome than my media credential provided me as a result of that dinner. Luke Hancock’s 4 Threes, Montrezl Harrell’s dunk are all burned into my consciousness.
But mostly I remember the aftermath. Rick Pitino and his family, him giving away his Hall of Fame jersey, the entire Pitino family on stage, the hugs, Kenny Klein, the confetti, the noise, the nets, the enthusiasm. I could never forget it. But what I’ll cherish most of all is walking to the Louisville locker room after the game and seeing my family for the very first time since the title was won and hugging them with celebration. Most of you reading this immediately grabbed and hugged your husband/wife, mom/dad, daughter/son, best friend, random stranger in a bar when Louisville won the 2013 National Championship. I went to work. So when I walked up to the Cardinal locker room I knew I had a minute before it opened to the press….. and the best blessing of my sporting life was seeing them there. I’d waited my entire life to watch the Louisville Cardinals win a national championship.
Back to yesterday after our 2 hour long session in Grawmeyer Hall I was on a different walk….. now it was possible that the NCAA Championship could be vacated and my thought immediately was: they’ll never take any of that away from me. And I thought about the rest of the Cardinal fanbase where generations celebrated together in this way for the first and only time of their lives. And I wondered: “Does the NCAA consider this?” Does the NCAA consider the fact that the Most Oustanding Player of the 2013 Tournament, the MOP Luke Hancock… did it consider that his father passed away shortly after watching his son’s most brilliant performance?
The university needs to be punished. There is no doubt at all about that. What Andre McGee did was wrong and he can live in ruin for eternity for what he did with Katina Powell. What McGee & Powell did together was, as the NCAA called, ‘repugnant’. You will get no argument from me that this happened, that it shouldn’t have happened, and that there needs to be a punishment.
Trey Lewis, Damion Lee & the 2015-16 Louisville Basketball team were punished. They weren’t involved….. right or wrong, the school did this. The school levied penalties for a reduction of scholarships, limited its contact, paid a fine. On Thursday I EXPECTED MORE SCHOLARSHIPS, I EXPECTED PROBATION, I EXPECTED RICK PITINO TO GET SUSPENDED, I EXPECTED A MONETARY FINE. But what I didn’t expect was an attack on the fans….. the people least complicit in this entire ordeal. The fans loyally have built the Louisville Basketball program with their support, their money, their interest & attendance…. the fans didn’t have any involvement in this. THE FANS ARE THE PROGRAM. It’s bigger than Greg Postel, Tom Jurich, Rick Pitino, any player…. the faces at the top change but the spirit of Louisville Basketball remains and strengthens from one generation to the next and there isn’t A SINGLE FAN OUT THERE WHO ISN’T HORRIFIED OR DEFENDING WHAT ANDRE MCGEE DID.
Cardinal fans have been through the ringer over the past 20 months. More than just Andre McGee & Katina Powell, but James Ramsey, the Board of Trustees, the other Board of Trustees, Papa John, the Audit, the Foundation………..
When does it stop?
Well when you are going through hell…. keep going.
The Cards will play for an NCAA Championship in Omaha this week. The baseball team has the most wins in school history, the best baseball player in the country and personally I think they’ll play in the championship series. UofL has a Heisman Trophy winner on campus set to return, an NCAA Champion in Steeplechase, 18 teams competed in the NCAA Tournament this year, world class facilities that continually get better, a dozen teams that finished the year ranked in the Top 25, 6 teams with APR scores in the Top 10% of the NCAA, Cardinal athletes are routinely speaking to young people in our community, visiting schools, visiting hospitals to the tune of 11,000 service hours (Top 5 in the nation).
There may be things that have run afoul at the University. Individuals have made HUGE errors in judgement and were given far too much lattitude & trust…… but somehow UofL, my school, has managed to do a lot of things right.
One day I’ll take another walk on campus. On that walk this entire ordeal will be in the past, hopefully many more championships will be won and I’ll remember how campus and UofL was when I was a student, and I’ll remember all of these really tough moments. I’ll remember all of the fantastic moments too. I’ll try to envision your stories of that night when Louisville beat Michigan in 2013…….. But most of all I’ll remember the euphoria of seeing my family outside the Louisville locker room in the Georgia Dome when they won the 2013 Title. The NCAA can’t take that away from me.
Mark Blankenbaker, University of Louisville c/o 2004. Son of Mark & Ruthie Blankenbaker, Brother to Natalie.