I sat down with Tom Jurich on Tuesday. I go back a long way with the Louisville athletic director, and I can say this is probably the most subdued that I’ve encountered him, and that includes going back to the Denny Crum conflict.
I would not describe the discussion as upbeat, nor was it difficult. Jurich, who is usually free-wheeling and shoots from the hip with media, was very disciplined in his answers. He only barely allowed himself to drift into the program’s past. He endeavored to keep the focus forward, even when the questions tried to do otherwise.
Q: What are your expectations for this program. Where should they, do you think, be set from year to year?
A: My goals and expectations for this program have never wavered. I want to be at the top. I want to compete for Big East titles. When we made the jump to the Big East that was the No. 1 goal because if you do that, you’re right there. Am I disappointed, certainly. Steve is disappointed. We all are. But we’ve got to face reality. We can’t make any excuses. We can’t point fingers. We’ve just got to face reality. And our reality is just that our numbers are down. There’s no way around it. It’s not a spin. It’s the numbers. You can count them. You saw Rutgers.
Q: I was at that game. And I wrote a column saying that people need answers. Fans need answers. And Steve, and I’ll give him credit for this, came out a day later and answered questions for an hour. And I think he sat up there and made a good-faith effort, but as the thing went on I’m sitting there realizing, there really is no dramatic thing he can put forward, no magic answer he can put out there that really is going to change much of the way people are thinking. Is there? Is there anything you can say or hold out there as any kind of an answer for a quick way out of this.
A: There’s no magic answer, how could you even make something up? You just have to go out and do your job. Football is A to Z. I just think that somewhere along the way in the past 6, 7, 8 years we missed M, N and O. And I want to make sure now that what we build is built right and on the right foundation.
Q: Is it a different process building it now than it was 10 years ago? You would seem to have more advantages.
A: Well, you have to get a different kid in here. You’re not allowed non-qualifiers and we made a big living off that. A good living, and that’s what Conference USA allowed us to do and we took advantage of everything we could.
Q: Did Bobby not start that movement? There was a feeling, I think, that John L. was a guy who was going to go out and find guys under rocks that had been overlooked, and he did a great job of that and came home with Dewayne White and Curry Burns and Kerry Rhodes and just, you could name a bunch. But when things started to get going, and Bobby got Michael his first year, did he not start to go after some bigger-name kids and start butting heads with the Auburns and Florida States and those people? I don’t know how you could say he fared or how he would have, but has that movement not been on for a while?
A: I don’t think so. You can maybe look at it with hindsight and see that, but I don’t think anybody had that method where we stated this is what we want to do. Bobby went to areas where he thought he was strong recruiting and some of them panned out and some didn’t. That’s the nature of it. But listen, we had to clear out a lot of discipline issues. And our numbers suffered. We cleared 21 kids out of here, and that’s a lot. That’s a big hit for anybody to take, Eric. I don’t know anyone that has. But we want to do things the right way.
Q: I talked to Steve last summer. And there was a long discussion of these kinds of issues, and I told him then that, of course, my bias is to get things out, but that I couldn’t help but feel if people had more specifics on his actions, on things he did, that it would probably translate into a little more sympathy for his situation, and he flat disagreed, said it would not matter, and that unless he wins, nothing he said would matter in that regard.
A: I don’t think so, either.
Q: Well, you know, I was critical of it being brought up, and then, you know, I wrote a column trying to sort out the whole pot thing this summer which, after the fact, I decided only probably confused matters more. But I gather there’s going to be no change on this.
A: He’s not going to point fingers. He’s taking everything on his chin.
Q: So, you have a program to sell, and a name, and some recent success. So what’s the tougher side of building this back?
A: We’ve got to go out and get character. Of course you have to get talent, but we really have to go out and get character. I think you see it across the board here, Jeff Walz, Rick Pitino, Dan McDonell. That’s our issue.
We’ve just got to stay the course. No matter how hard it is, we’ve got to stay the course.
Q: How hard is it?
A: It’s not easy. I don’t enjoy being in this position. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t enjoy it at all. But I’m going to do the job. I’m going to be a professional and work very hard.
Q: For you, I know, it’s something you love, but it’s also a job, and you can look at it from a problem standpoint, be disappointed, then get over it and get back to work. For people sitting in that stadium, getting past it, I think, is not so easy. Is there anything you can say to those people to make that happen?
A: We just can’t make excuses. And I told Steve that, too. Look, Ron English was the perfect barometer for me. He came last year from a program that beat Tim Tebow in a bowl game. And he came here and saw what we had and just shook his head. He saw it first hand. You saw the Rutgers game. That’s worth a thousand words, a million words, in explaining where it is we have to go.
Q: Of the things that Steve is doing, are there things that should be done differently than they were the last couple of years?
A: I think we’ve just got to keep focusing on getting great kids in here, evaluating, making sure we get the right people in here and making sure we have retention. The retention rate, as we move forward, is going to be important as anything.
Q: In John L.’s first year, you basically went to him after the 0-2 start and told him to bite the bullet, not play any freshmen, not worry about the record and just build the best he could. I know that nobody likes to sacrifice a season, but do you look at next year and say something
A: Well, with the freshmen we did pretty much this year. I think we only played three, so Steve’s trying to do the right things with those kids.
The thing I’ve got to focus on now, more than anything, or anybody, is the foundation. Make sure we continue to grow that foundation. We can’t afford recruiting mistakes now. But it’s a challenge, and I’ve always met challenges head on.
We’re going to work hard. We’ve put a good staff together. My first goal is the Big East, because if you can win the Big East that puts you in the national picture. Let’s get ourselves back on track in the Big East. And immediately, I just want to take the field with enough bodies. We were at such a disadvantage this year with numbers. Every day, the injury report coming down was the most important thing we had. When Scott Long went down in the middle of a week, you’re just saying, “Is this ever going to end?”
Q: What is Steve doing that you like, and are there things you’d like to see him do differently?
A: Steve knows right now that we just have to move on, and that’s why I’m so impressed with him. He’s a trooper. He just keeps going straight ahead. He works hard, and everything I see — and you know I’m watching things closely right now — he’s doing right. Eric, I did a lot of homework before I hired him. People don’t realize how much work I put into that. I talked to Bob Stoops, Greg Williams, Dan Henning. I can give you lists and lists and lists of what people thought of him.
Q: About Steve. Tell me what you’ve observed of him, learned about him the past two years.
A: He’s a tough individual. A hard-nosed guy. I’ve seen a lot of people who really would have cracked. You know, this is a very difficult town for him to live in, because of his children. That’s makes it tough. I’ve been through it. I went through it with the Crum thing, so I know what it’s like. It’s not any fun.
I know him. I don’t know him as well as people like to perceive it, but what I know of him I really appreciate because he’s not pointing any fingers. Every issue here, we take it head on, and we will find a way. All the kids, I know what they think of him because they come in here and tell me. He’s got a lot of people shooting at his back, and that makes it very tough. A lot of people shooting at me. And I get it, I get it.
Q: I tell you, I wondered what was going to happen after Rutgers, not necessarily because of what was happening on the field, but because of what he might be going through away from it.
A: He rolls up his sleeves. I’ve never seen anybody like him. I’ve seen a lot of coaches go run and hide. Not this cat.
Q: If you’re asked, and I’m sure you are, what brings you to the office and gives you the hope and belief that that things will get back to where they were, what is it?
A: Because I think he’s so focused on building the infrastructure and he knows how to do it and what to do. He knows the type of kids to go after. That’s just what we have to get. And I know it sounds like such a cop out, Eric, but it’s the numbers. In basketball, you can get by with 8 or 9 guys. In football, you just can’t be down in numbers. From my standpoint (knocking on desk) our discipline issues I think are gone. I’m not naive enough to think there aren’t some that crop up. But I think they’re pretty much gone. I love the strength and conditioning people we have in place now. From an academic standpoint they’re doing everything right. We just have to translate everything into W’s.
Q: Every week, I get emails asking me, “Why expand the stadium when things are so down right now?”
A: I’m not looking at the stadium in terms of next year or the year after. That’s a project that will benefit the program for years to come, long after I’m gone.
Nobody ever lines up and says this is where they want to be. But the good thing is, you learn a lot about people in adversity. I’ve always believed that adversity builds character, and you see people’s true colors.
But there are great fans here. I’m very appreciative of all they’ve done for this program. And I thank them for that. I just want to move forward.
Q: But you’ve got people suggesting things like, “Well, he’s sitting there watching this program be dismantled and not willing to make a move because the coach is his friend,” things like that —
A: Yeah, that’s really what you want. That’s what you really want — somebody to come in and tear up everything you’ve worked for and poured your life into. Listen, I’m paying a lot of attention to this program. I don’t know, internally, if you can find any bad words about Steve.
Q: So where do you stand right now?
I’m just going to do my job the best I can do it and let the chips fall where they may. And that’s where I’m at. I hired Steve the same way I hired everybody else on this staff, Rick or Dan or Jeff Walz or Lolla or any of those guys. This is the same committee.
Next year, I’m going to be very realistic. I want to see improvement, I want to see it. But you might not see it in wins and losses. I just hope we can stay healthy. We have to.
Check back this morning for an extended version of my interview with former U of L coach Howard Schnellenberger.