I was born in 1973. To some that makes me ancient, to others, I am a mere pup. I do not offer this information to bolster either argument; rather, it is merely illustrative of an underlying principle that everyone needs to embrace. Perspective means a lot.
In 1983 I was forced to make a decision. As we sat at the drive-thru window for Arby’s on 3rd Street in South Louisville, a promotion was underway. The restaurant was providing the customer with their choice of either a University of Kentucky or a University of Louisville, drinking glass. Few decisions have been made in my life that have had more impact than this one. To be honest, I had no real clue or care about the choice, but my mother was a University of Louisville dental student at the time, so the choice that made the most sense was red and black. My allegiance was born.
Over the next 34 years, I had an opportunity to experience fandom in a way that most will never experience. Some of it was amazing, some of it, especially the last two years, has been anything but. In 1986 my family traveled to Dallas, Texas to watch the team win what may turn out to be our most recent National Championship. The following year Denny Crum allowed me to be a ball boy. In the summer between I found myself at the main campus, equipped with a “dependent ID” that allowed me to swim in the pools, or shoot hoops in Crawford Gym. I snared rebounds for Pervis Ellison while he worked on his free throws, I hung out in the dorm room of David Robinson, I learned how to conjugate curse words by listening to Kenny Payne, and I recall that Herb Crook’s dorm room door had a perpetual note that read, “Be back in 30 minutes.”
Over the years I recall several instances of shoveling snow in my driveway to shoot hoops during halftime of Louisville games. I remember Al McGuire and his “Cool Hand Luke” moniker for Denny Crum. I recall the departure of Wade Houston and the unmitigated disaster that was “The Larry Gay Years.”
Later, I had an opportunity to follow the team to Pittsburgh for the NCAA tournament, and follow it up a week later with a trip to Syracuse for Denny’s last real hurrah. An ill-timed sprained ankle for DeJuan Wheat, and thoughts of what could have been infiltrated the 12-hour car ride home that weekend.
My recollection goes hazy for a bit after that. I did make additional road trips as a fan, but none that stick out. I do recall the clamor for an improvement, the sting of the NCAA inquiries into hotel rooms for parents, or what kinds of cars for players, and ultimately, the realization that even if those impermissible benefits had occurred, we still weren’t winning at the highest level.
Interwoven during this time was the epic collapse of the University of Kentucky basketball program, and the meteoric ascension that was guided by one of the most polarizing figures that U of L fans could imagine; Richard A. Pitino. When Rick finally left for the NBA all felt a little better. Ultimately, it would feel amazing. (Thank you, Billy Gillispie) The guaranteed success in Lexington was a thing of the past, now they had to take their lumps like all the rest of us.
When the decision to “retire” Denny Crum came down I could be counted in the group of people that were not okay with that plan. Denny had been Louisville basketball for my entire life. Although the shine was worn and faded, and although the winning had taken a drastic hit, I felt that Denny should be allowed to stay as long as he wanted. Tom Jurich felt otherwise. Tough decisions had to be made, and I would have to deal with it.
Later, when Denny’s replacement was announced, I was bitter. Living in Tennessee at the time, I recall telling my wife how much I hated the hire, but that I did relish one thing; we would at least be winning again. I spent the better part of the next ten years as a fan, but not a fanatic. I questioned strategies, deplored “end game” coaching choices, and wondered aloud often why we didn’t take time-outs and draw up winning plays in close games.
Also during that 10-year stint, I became a non-traditional student at the University and found myself in classes with players such as Taquan Dean, and Simeon Naydenov. I will never forget being mistaken for the “teacher” when Broderick Clark, of the football team, wanted to speak with Simeon in between classes. I learned a different view of the University, and of the athletics surrounding it during this time.
I did not attend the Final Four in 2005 when Louisville bowed out to eventual runner-up, Illinois, but I did attend the send-off at Fourth Street Live. I recall finally embracing the idea that Rick Pitino was in charge of my beloved program during this time. This revelation was based solely on his success, not his winning personality.
During this time, I also watched as the campus continued to transform. The football program had progressed steadily, and in 2006 made a brief appearance as a national title contender. One coaching change later, and it would be as if football had hit CTRL-ALT-DEL. Floyd Street changed during this time too. While the football program was in a “rebuilding mode” the campus was just in a “building mode.” The revenue sports practice facilities were better, all non-revenue sports facilities were better, there was more difficulty in finding student parking, but life was better for the players; all of the players.
During this ride, the common denominator for growth, and success was the Athletic Director, Tom Jurich. Tom made quick work of his lone hiring misfire in football, secured an up and coming baseball coach for the ages, and had the commonplace, everyday Louisville fans familiar with the names of the Men’s Soccer, and Women’s Basketball teams. All of this was accomplished under Tom’s direction, and with stories of unparalleled financial success. At one point the University of Louisville was not one of the most profitable athletic departments in the country, it was THE most profitable athletic department in the country.
Louisville changed conference affiliations along the way so often that the school, and its fans, were equally well versed with the Big East, the AAC, and ultimately the ACC. As fans, we could claim that our school owned one league and rented the penthouse suite in the next. However, on balance, there has been nothing to crow about with our current home. The on the field/court success has been okay, but nowhere near what it was when feasting on the BIG EAST, or AAC foes.
During the transition from league to league, my role as a fan was defined differently. I had completed an undergraduate degree from U of L. I sat out two years and then completed the night law school program as well. Armed with two degrees from the University, I have often quipped that if I had stayed on campus much longer, I would have certainly had to change my fan affiliation. You see, the more you observe, the less you like. While there were no “A HA” moments for me during this time, there were clear indications that this was not what I had remembered as a snow shoveling kid, or a sweat wiping ball boy. This seemed different. Again, perspective is an important thing.
That is not to say that I did not care for the sports programs at U of L. In 2012, I loaded up the family for the once in a lifetime opportunity to see U of L and UK in the Final Four. Although disappointed with the outcome, it was apparent, we were back. In 2013 the story is even better. Not only from the Men’s Basketball side of things, but Baseball, Football, Women’s Basketball, all of it was too good to be true. Hold that thought. I was hooked again with the bug of my youth; total fandom, and full on support. When given an opportunity to write for thecrcunchzone.com, I was armed with all of this, and inside access. I covered Women’s Basketball because I enjoyed it. I offered commentary on other sports because Mark and Mike would let me. I knew more than I had before, and that was awesome; until it wasn’t.
When my professional background began to yield dividends for the site that was a sign of bad things to come for my Alma Mater. The Chris Jones case was my first opportunity to help simplify the legal world for Louisville fans who weren’t familiar with grand juries, probable cause hearings, and HIP. If that had been all of it, then that would have been not so bad. Now, after the Powell case, the ensuing NCAA investigation, penalties, appeals, along with the new FBI probe, and the impending termination of Men’s Basketball Coach, Rick Pitino, I am either on the radio or in the paper seemingly every other day. When that isn’t the case, I am writing for TCZ, or doing podcasts on the subject. All of it is exhausting from a fan’s perspective. It is one part saddening, and three parts maddening and there is frustration enough to share in many directions.
As a fan, I liken it to a kid when they find out that Santa isn’t real. You know, when you still like Christmas, but you realize the magic is gone. I still find myself cheering for the teams, and complaining when there is a bad play or a tough loss, but it IS different now. If nothing else, the events of the last several weeks have shown us all that this NCAA team fandom that we all share is nothing more than a big business. It is run by money, and corporate sponsors, and television deals. It is dressed up in either college pride, civic pride, or state affiliation. This NCAA product that we have all grown to know and love leans heavily on the fact that the players are amateurs, and that these “kids” are all “student-athletes.” What an absolute crock.
As an objective adult, and an alum of the University, the recent revelations are far more disturbing. I cannot help but review page after page of scandal, and then deal after deal, or more pointedly, dollar after dollar, and think that these games weren’t about anything other than money and they haven’t been for a long time.
On both social and traditional media, the messengers have been excoriated time and time again. While the optics of for-profit publications “piling on” is understandable, one should not give a free pass to the optics of the non-profits with respect to the facts that are being brought forward. It is, in fact, possible to be a fan of the school and even the teams and hate like hell the fact that somewhere in all of this we have crossed the wires. There is no way that anyone can argue that what has happened on the Louisville campus is anything short of tragic. From missing money in the Foundation’s coffers to secretive deals amongst the administrators, refusal to acknowledge the stench from the Belknap Campus is at best unwavering loyalty, and at worst, complicit naivety.
In my youthful upbringing, there was a saying at church; “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” The same holds true here with U of L. I will forever recall the days of my youth with great happiness. They were often centered on receiving a new U of L article of clothing, or a surprise invitation to a weeknight basketball game. As an adult, I can say that I hate the sins that my favorite team/school has engaged in. I understand the media scrutiny. I participate in it. I am not happy that this is the position with which I find my team, but I am not in denial either. It needs to change, and it must change.
Just as the Denny Crum era came to an end, so too does this chapter for the University of Louisville. As was said in the movie “Cocktail” “It always ends badly, if it didn’t, it wouldn’t end at all.” Changes are needed from the inside out, but some of those changes will most certainly have to come from the fans. For me, the changes in perspective have been helpful, even if they have yielded heartache. I believe that the University will do well again. I believe that the athletic department will do well again. I also believe that never again can we allow ourselves to be so whipped up into a frenzy that we are willing to overlook the obvious. I pray that we all have a better perspective now.
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