Photo by Wales Hunter
A chance meeting some 20 years ago changed the course of Kentucky athletics forever. Wyoming insurance broker Jim LaFleiche and a delegation of University of Louisville administrators, including then-basketball coach Denny Crum and athletics director Bill Olsen, met at a football game in Laramie, Wyo. “I just asked them if they’d like to meet the best young athletics director in the country,” LaFleiche says. That athletics director was Tom Jurich, our 2013 Kentuckian of the Year.
After 16 years at UofL, it’s an accepted fact, based on the accomplishments of 2013, that Jurich is the country’s best athletics director—period. That Jurich is running more than an hour late for our meeting at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on an October night—when more than 20 NFL scouts were on hand to see Heisman Trophy candidate Teddy Bridgewater and company take on Rutgers—because of game traffic is a testament to his success. There were traffic problems before his arrival at UofL, but there also were plenty of empty seats. And once upon a time, you couldn’t give UofL football tickets away.
No other college program has had a year—across the board—on par with that of UofL. The year started with the football team winning the Sugar Bowl in an upset thumping of No. 3 Florida. Less than four months later, the top-seeded men’s and third-ranked women’s basketball teams each reached the NCAA Final Four, with the men rallying past Michigan 82-76 for the school’s third national title. The women reached the finals after pulling off one of the biggest upsets in women’s basketball history. Then the baseball team reached the College World Series, completing a superfecta of major sports never before accomplished.
“No one has done what we’ve done,” says sports information director Kenny Klein. “That doesn’t even take into account the women’s soccer team [ranked eighth]; the top-25 swimming team, which had a national championship swimmer [Joao De Lucca]; and the top-20 women’s volleyball and softball teams.” Ten different UofL teams were ranked in the Top 25 in 2013.
With the Jurich family still stuck in traffic, the AD’s fifth-floor luxury box is largely vacant other than a photographer, a bartender, Klein, LaFleiche and one nosy reporter. The walls are adorned with photos of highlights of 2013—football Coach Charlie Strong and Jurich hugging at midfield following the Sugar Bowl and Jurich and basketball Coach Rick Pitino, whom Jurich courted, celebrating the Final Four in Atlanta. On countertops are autographed photos of Jurich and Cardinal football legends Johnny Unitas and Lenny Lyles.
The crowd quickly grows, and moments later Jurich arrives with his wife, Terrilynn, a former Miss Wyoming, and twin daughters Haley and Lacey, both former field hockey players. Later, son Mark, a former UofL baseball player who is now the associate athletic director of development, arrives in the box. Outside, in the other luxury suites, between bursts of on-field action, the discussion turns to a perturbing rumor that Jurich is being courted by the University of Texas, which wants to steal both him and Strong to resurrect the embattled Longhorns.
Inside the box, there is no such chatter.
“We have been blessed to see the fruits of our labors,” says Jurich, dressed head to toe in black. “We’ve approached everything with the attitude of being humble but hungry, and not taking anything or anyone for granted. We have strived to be a model of consistency built on a foundation of class and integrity.”
The path to success has not been an easy one. In the weeks leading up to the Sugar Bowl, there was speculation that Strong would leave for the head coaching job at the University of Tennessee, but Jurich convinced the coach that following through on what Strong has built is far more rewarding than just chasing the money. When Strong complained about lackluster fan support for his Big East Championship team, more than 18,000 fans responded and made the trip to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl and have packed the home stadium since. When sophomore guard Kevin Ware shattered his leg while playing against Duke in the NCAA Tournament, many thought the Cards’ championship hopes were lost. Instead, the team rallied around Ware, and other players rose to the occasion.
“Those two minutes of coaching [after Ware’s injury] are among the greatest in college basketball. He [Pitino] focused the team and prevailed when it would have been understandable if we’d just folded. I wouldn’t ever say that we’ve turned obstacles into opportunities, but we’ve certainly shown the resiliency to overcome and succeed,” Jurich says.
Strong and Pitino have both said they’re committed to Jurich’s vision and both signed long-term contracts. “They should build a monument to Tom,” basketball analyst Dick Vitale has said. With the stadium expansion, the athletic field expansions along Interstate 65 and the construction of the downtown Yum! Center, they more or less have.
The key to Jurich’s success is his claim that no one sport is more important than any other. “Really, we’ve strived for consistency rather than building for championships. I believe if you do the right things the right ways, wins will follow.”
Down the hall in the press box, Kevin Miller, Jurich’s right-hand man and associate AD, recounts a story that supports his boss’ view. “We were driving, somewhere between Phoenix and Tucson on the way to a baseball game [in the spring of 2012],” Miller says. “Killing time, he started going through each of the teams, all of the sports, almost player by player [which is more than 500 student athletes], and I can remember him saying, ‘You know, we’re going to be really good next year; really good.’ ”
Jurich was certainly right. Looking back over 2013, he cannot pick a moment as his favorite. Terrilynn is quick to interject that winning the NCAA Final Four has to be No. 1 because it was Jurich’s first national championship, “But it’s hard to top the excitement of the Sugar Bowl,” she says.
Standing alone, watching the game, Jurich appears to ponder the question.
On this evening, the weather is perfect, the house is packed (fourth-largest crowd in stadium history), and NFL scouts and the young bucks from ESPN’s broadcast team are strolling the upper concourse. On this night, this is the place to be.
Jurich has been named Athletics Director of the Year, Louisvillian of the Year and Louisville Magazine’s Person of the Year. He and Terrilynn shared UofL’s prestigious Hickman-Camp Award for contributions to the athletics department. In 2006, he was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.
He pauses. “You know, if anything, getting the University of Louisville into the Atlantic Coast Conference is, without question, the No. 1 accomplishment for the school,” Jurich says. “There are too many great sports moments to choose from, but that—moving to the ACC—is the one that will have the longest, greatest impact on the university, not just the athletic department. It’ll elevate everything, no question.”
Upon hearing that he had been selected as Kentucky Monthly’s Kentuckian of the Year for 2013, he appears shocked. His demeanor changes, and he seems to almost blush. “I can’t even begin to express what that means to my family and me,” he says.
Within hours Yahoo! Sports and ESPN announce that sources close to Jurich had learned that he was “committed to Louisville and not a candidate for the Texas job or any other job.”