Magical time for ACC-bound Louisville
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville's best year ever has forced the Cardinals to re-arrange the trophy cases around the athletic department.
The Cardinals have had to make room for that big crystal basketball along with the men's NCAA title trophy, while the women's program must create space for the plaques from their stunning runner-up finish. That's on top of finding a spot to display the Sugar Bowl trophy won by the football team, with additional hardware possibly coming if Louisville's baseball team wins the College World Series this weekend.
That's a good problem to have.
Athletic director Tom Jurich and the Cardinals are definitely on a roll. The school accepted an invitation into the Atlantic Coast Conference beginning in 2014. That move and the Cardinals' recent performances challenges them to do even better.
"I'd be lying if I said I envisioned doing what we did this year," Jurich told The Associated Press this week. "This is a magical time and we're going to enjoy it and not take it for granted.
"But we're not going to gloat, because that's not how this university and athletic department is built. We're always going to be humble and hungry."
That certainly seems to be the case with Cardinals football after their 33-23 Sugar Bowl upset of Florida on Jan. 2 capped an 11-2 season that included a share of their second consecutive Big East Conference championship.
Louisville's victory in New Orleans came a month after coach Charlie Strong turned down Tennessee's offer to lead its program. He's now one of college football's top 10 highest-paid coaches after receiving an eight-year contract extension in February that will pay him an annual base salary of $3.7 million.
Louisville returns much of its roster including junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater — projected as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate — and the team is considered an overwhelming favorite to win a reconfigured, rebranded league known as the American Athletic Conference.
Already dealing with the exodus of Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC, the conference took another hit last winter when the Big East's seven non-football schools broke away to form a league with the Big East name. The AAC will retain its BCS affiliation.
Jurich said the changes haven't dampened fans' anticipation for Louisville's lone AAC season before moving to the ACC. The season ticket base for Papa John's Cardinal Stadium has increased from 43,500 to 45,000, and tickets for both basketball programs remain hard to get at the KFC Yum! Center downtown.
"That Sugar Bowl win was enormous and gave us energy around the program," Jurich said.
Louisville's victory also spurred the Cardinals to an incredible run of marquee victories.
Their biggest triumph of course was the 82-76 defeat of Michigan for the men's third national title and first since 1986. Louisville's 35-5 season included a one-week tenure at No. 1 before falling to 11th with a three-game skid.
The Cardinals regrouped to win their second straight Big East tournament title and earn the NCAA's No. 1 overall seed. Louisville mostly dominated but not every game was easy; when sophomore guard Kevin Ware broke his right leg in horrific fashion defending a shot against Duke in the Midwest Regional final, several Cardinals were seen crying and needed a few minutes to collect themselves.
They recovered to rout Duke and Ware's injury led to a deluge of support and attention — not to mention, providing yet another rallying point for Cardinals heading to the Final Four in Atlanta. The championship was part of a personally rewarding week for Rick Pitino. The coach was elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame, his son Richard was hired as Minnesota's coach and the thoroughbred he co-owns, Goldencents, won the Santa Anita Derby to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Guard Peyton Siva and center Gorgui Dieng are gone, but as a smiling Pitino said last week, "we have a lot coming back."
Louisville's women (29-9) meanwhile made a remarkable charge to their second title-game appearance before being routed 93-60 by Connecticut in New Orleans. Their tournament run included a huge 82-81 upset of defending champion and No. 1 seed Baylor, leading for all but a few seconds, followed by another upset of Tennessee.
Pretty good for a team that battled injuries for a second straight season. But then, it's just been that kind of year all around.
Jurich believes the roll began last November when the ACC invited Louisville to replace Maryland, which will join Big East member Rutgers in the Big Ten. Disappointed in its effort to join the Big 12 and considered the ACC's second choice after Connecticut, Louisville instead emerged with the invitation to join one of the nation's marquee leagues.
Jurich sees that as the culmination of everything he has tried to build in 16 years on the job.
"We got the unbelievable break of Maryland going to the Big Ten and getting their spot in the ACC," he said. "To me, that trumps everything. That recognizes what we've tried to do here academically and athletically. One thing I didn't want was for us to be considered a one-sport school."
Louisville's success extends to other areas as well.
Six teams including men's basketball posted perfect 1000 scores in the NCAA's latest Academic Progress Rate data, with all 23 sports recording four-year APR scores above 920.
The school recently broke ground on an $18.5 million soccer facility that will include a 5,300-seat stadium. It follows a 1,500-seat expansion of baseball's Jim Patterson Stadium home, which has helped earn the Cardinals' second World Series berth this weekend in Omaha, Neb.
Jurich hesitates to call this latest achievement the icing on an incredible year. Instead, he hopes this year provides the recipe for more success.
"I don't think anyone's ever had a better year. It's got to be our best," Jurich said. "But we can get better. Every sport can get better.
"We can improve in a lot of areas, and we're going to improve. We've never been one to rest on our laurels. We're a hard-charging department, we're very aggressive, and we're going to do it the right way."