There have been Louisville natives and outsiders alike this week who have referred to the multiple celebrations honoring UofL’s official induction into the ACC as “overkill.”
It’s true, I think, that no program or fan base has celebrated a move to a new conference more exhaustively than Card Nation has celebrated it’s move to the ACC, but there’s a reason for that. Not only have Louisville fans, administrators, coaches and athletes experienced what it feels like to be passed over, but they’ve been faced with the reality of being left behind completely and been forced to stare it dead in the eyes.
By November of 2012, UofL fans had come to terms with the fact that the curious conference realignment roulette ball was never going to bounce in their favor. They hadn’t been a part of the first helping of Big East-to-ACC defections that rocked the college sports landscape, and then they’d lost out to West Virginia in a highly publicized battle for an invitation to the Big 12.
None of this made much sense to Louisville fans, who watched their basketball, football and baseball teams kick around the programs headed to greener pastures, only to spend the mornings after listening to things like television markets and airport size used as justification for the inferior on-field program’s superiority.
When news broke on Nov. 17, 2012 that Maryland and Rutgers would both soon be announcing moves to the Big 10, Cardinal fans immediately expected the worst. Experience had conditioned them so well that they hardly batted an eye when every network on the planet began reporting that Connecticut was the program most likely to fill the ACC spot being left behind by the Terrapins.
Then Tom Jurich went to work. He dug up every contact he could remember, he made travel plans and he hit the phones. Hard.
“Every waking hour,” Jurich said after the dust had settled. “This has been the only thing. I pulled in every marker I had in the United States. I really did. Every marker I had in 29 years as an AD, I pulled in, from TV people to other league commissioners to professional sports. Anyone who could vouch for us, I asked them. You’ve got to sell yourself.”
Six days after Maryland announced its departure plans, Louisville had become a “neck-and-neck” contender with UConn for that coveted ACC spot. After nine days, UofL was the leader. On day 11, the Cards were in.
The most incredible thing about the entire saga remains how, despite all the slaps in the face that UofL received during every awful helping of conference realignment madness, Louisville walked out of it all in the perfect situation.
The ACC has always been the ideal spot for Cardinal athletics, but it was a pipe dream that had never been on the table and seemed like it would never be on the table.
The main attraction for Louisville when it moved to the Big East nearly a decade ago was the induction into a conference that was the king of college basketball. The ACC brings that reality back, and to an even higher degree. Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Pitt, NC State, Coach K, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim, Tobacco Road, the Cameron Crazies; you really don’t have to say anything else. Basketball is a pretty big deal in the Derby City, so the move to a conference that will be the focal point of the hoops world from November through March is reason enough to justify this week’s celebrations.
As far as the other major sport is concerned, there is no aspect of the football program that isn’t improved dramatically by jumping to the ACC. You’re leaving a conference that has now been excluded from the BCS for one that has already secured access to the sport’s biggest stage. You’re leaving home games against Memphis and SMU behind for home games against Florida State and Miami. You’re no longer seriously worried about competitors using conference affiliation against you on the recruiting trail. You’re no longer worried about national perception (fair or unfair) working against you.
This year alone, Louisville will play at least four football games that would have been the main attraction on their schedule in any of the past three seasons. No more weekly radio programs dedicated solely to UofL’s national perception, no more fan complaints over the lack of excitement inside Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, no more being overly-invested in Cincinnati vs. Toledo or Central Florida vs. Temple; from this point forward, if the Cardinals take care of business on the gridiron, then everything else is going to take care of itself. That peace of mind is also reason enough to justify this week’s celebrations.
Louisville fans should be thankful for their one season in the American Athletic Conference, because it gave them a firsthand experience what could have been and what very nearly was. If the Cardinals go 11-1 in football this season, they won’t be playing in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 28. If Rick Pitino again leads UofL to 31 victories and a conference regular season and tournament championship, the Cards are not going to be a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Just listing Tom Jurich’s accomplishments since he arrived at Louisville would be enough to fill this column’s space for the next month. That said, I’m not sure he’s done any work more significant than the miracle he pulled off during those 11 days in November of 2012. In moving UofL to the ACC, Jurich has provided each one of his programs with the ultimate vehicle for success. It’s now on the coaches, players and fans to navigate the thing appropriately.
The celebrations are justified.