Q: Now that you have your U of L football access back, how about writing something about the current coach’s job performance?
A: Not sure what you are talking about, but I’m glad you asked the question.
My media access to the University of Louisville, University of Kentucky or any other sports entity has never been threatened. And frankly, this line of thinking shows a rather alarming lack of understanding of how the system works, so I think it’s worth discussing here for a minute.
The U of L sports information department is headed by Kenny Klein. If he’s not the most respected SID in the nation, he’s close to it. To revoke a newspaper reporter or columnist’s credential based on something he or she said would be unethical, and would not happen on his watch, nor the watch of any reputable sports information director at any major university in the United States.
I don’t know how things work with new media, or smaller outlets. I know that The Courier-Journal, in my experience, has never been threatened with losing credentials.
I have written, I know, many things that folks at U of L have not particularly liked over the past two years. It has not stopped people, for the most part, from answering my questions or returning my calls. When I was second-guessing Steve Kragthorpe on why he would use Scott Long on the punt coverage team when he was the only legitimate receiver on the roster before this season, Kragthorpe took time to talk to me one-on-one even though he knew I didn’t share his belief.
When they don’t like something I’ve done, or think I’ve gotten something wrong, they’re welcome to contact me. Sometimes they do. Rick Pitino has called me once on an issue like that in eight years, and he just wanted an explanation on the timing of a story, not to officially complain. I have been on the other end of the phone for several obscenitiy-laced Bobby Petrino tirades. It did not keep me from covering him objectively. I expect them to try to influence me, because that is their job. It is my job not to be influenced and to report the facts as I get them and offer my opinions as they are.
These things happen, and back-and-forth should happen. But for me, and for this newspaper, access to press conferences or games has never been threatened, implied or otherwise.
I can’t speak to the experience of other media in town, because I know there have been some scrapes in the radio business and maybe with online outlets, but I can tell you that positive or negative, the seat of The Courier-Journal has always been there at U of L sporting events, and has not been threatened.
A good example. Nobody over there was any too happy when Pat Forde threw cold water over their new slogan, “Best College Sports Town in America.” Pat jumped on it with both feet. Said we might have the best omelets in town at Lynn’s Paradise Cafe but we are not the best college sports town. Next football game, Forde is sitting next to me on press row, and a chef appears behind him with this covered dish and a huge omelet inside. Turn around and look up, and there’s Pitino laughing his tail off, with Kenny and others. Forde had a picture of himself with that omelet in his office. (Digression over.)
I’ve had several people write to me questioning the motives of today’s column. In reality, it was an assignment I was given, to take a wider view of the program and examine a pertinent question: In the post Bush-Brohm era, can the program expect to attain the same heights it did two years ago. As it developed, I wound up making this column a collection of opinions from people who have had the largest hands in building this program. I consider what they had to say relevant, if, admittedly, not groundbreaking.
I think, too, we have reached a Madoff point in society. In other words, people only generally accept a piece of work if it is what they want to hear. Sometimes, I have written columns that have been hailed by readers as “brilliant work” when, in actuality, it wasn’t so much brilliant as my opinion dovetailing with what they wanted to hear. At other times, when what you say doesn’t line up with what they believe, then you didn’t “do your job.”
I think of people who got statements from this Madoff guy, the famous Ponzi schemer. He essentially was taking people’s money to invest and sending them back fraudulent statements showing them that they were getting huge returns that actually didn’t exist.
Even when some tried to blow the whistle on this thing, many clients didn’t want to hear it. They’d rather believe those statements, because those statements were saying what investors wanted them to say.
I thought it was worthwhile to hear what Jurich, Smith, Schnellenberger and Corso in particular had to say. All four have played a part in building U of L football. I don’t know that I’d call any of it groundbreaking, but they are people who should be heard out.
I’d love to have the same conversation with Petrino. My goodness, talk about Christmas! So far, no luck on that front.
I would love to have found some national pundits to disagree with the stances these guys took in today’s column. It would’ve made for more debate, more controversy, more web hits (!) They aren’t there. Unless you go to the fan base. And I’m not going to give Joe in E’town (no offense, E’town) the same weight in a column as I give Howard Schnellenberger. This column, in the end, was limited to those who had built bowl-winning teams at U of L. (Several other ESPN commentators also were interviewed, and some were more strident in their opinions that Kragthorpe had inherited a bad situation, and because we’ve pretty much had that discussion here, and because my take on it is well known, I didn’t choose to hijack the story with that line of thinking.)
I also was glad that Ron English gave me some time on Christmas Eve, and will write that column on Sunday for Monday. And if fans don’t like what he has to say, and I’m going to wager that some who are anti-Kragthorpe will not, then it will be dismissed in one way or another. But what the man has to say has value, and is worth hearing.
In the end, there is value to getting all these people on the record. And there is value in getting their thoughts, agree or disagree.
Now this. I withheld my opinion from today’s piece and will largely do the same with the English piece, because I don’t want to step on what these guys have to say.
But people ask what I think, and I will get into that here.
I will say, this is a difficult story on which to find footing because both sides have actual facts. Both are well-supplied with ammunition.
As I’ve said more than once — throw out all the bad luck, the defections, suspensions, injuries — and there is still plenty to question this coaching staff about in terms of plain, old football decisions. If you don’t think Kragthorpe has the juice to get the job done at Louisville, you have plenty on which to base that opinion. And I certainly can’t sit here and tell you otherwise.
At the same time, Tom Jurich knows football. The program has lost 22 players, by my count, since Steve Kragthorpe took over. He bears varying degrees of responsibility. Seven were dismissed. Another flunked out. Eight others left, several before official suspensions were handed down. Four had
their careers ended by freak injuries or medical suspensions. Two made misguided forays into the NFL Draft. This doesn’t represent 21 discipline issues, and in my effort to let Jurich have his say I still should have made this breakdown in print, and will examine it in more depth in the weeks to come.
In the four recruiting classes directly preceding the arrival of Kragthorpe — players recruited before ever he set foot on campus — there were 90 players. Of those, 42 no longer are with the program. They either never made it to campus, were dismissed, transfered, or had their careers cut short by injury.
That’s 22 lost under Kragthorpe, and 20 presumably, that could be charged to Petrino. Though you could haggle over a few of them. Of Kragthorpe’s 22, four were out of his control, and seven more showed blatant and repeated (or, in at least one case, criminal) disregard for the rules and likely would have been gone from most programs.
Whatever the case, no program can absorb losing nearly half of its recruited players in a four-year period.
So for those who defend Kragthorpe, and say he deserves more time because of these circumstances he has encountered, they too have facts at their disposal, no less true than those who are displeased with the job he’s done.
So how do I divide it? I at least have the advantage of not having an emotional involvement. I’m not paying to see the games. I have no stake in Kragthorpe’s success or failure. I can look at each side and see merits.
I suppose it breaks down into a chicken-or-egg kind of question. Which came first, bad coaching or bad circumstance? I think 2007 was a case of the former. I think the season just ended was a case of the latter.
So what should be done?
I say next year is more or less a lost year anyway. But if the thing is going to turn around under the current staff, you’ll see measurable progress next season, even if the record does not improve. So how do you measure it? Do they beat teams they’re supposed to beat? Do they improve from the first game to the last? Does depth start to develop?
I don’t like some of the things I’ve seen called from the U of L sidelines. I think in terms of intensity, attention to detail and sophistication of preparation, Bobby Petrino is in the top 5 percent of college coaches in America. Maybe higher than that. What Kragthorpe does is probably in line with most coaches in America do. But if you’ve been playing for the former, what happens when you get the latter. And, by the way, how often to you have a chance to hire and retain the former?
I have my doubts. I don’t think it looks good for Kragthorpe, either from a support standpoint or from what I see on the field. I’ve expressed these doubts in print. But at this point, on this date, there’s not much to be gained by some kind of rash and dramatic action.
In other words, if this staff is going to get it done, you ought to be able to see a pretty good sign of it in season three, regardless of the record. And if they don’t get it done, then next year will truly be “rock bottom,” a place that while no fun, is not altogether without usefulness for the next guy, as Howard Schnellenberger pointed out in the interview I did with him (provided below on this blog).
So I’m one of the reluctant ones who shakes his head and says, all right, let’s see what happens.
In the meantime, I wrote the truce column for one reason — not to back one side or the other, but because I think the best long-term interests of the school’s overall athletic program demand it. That’s my honest opinion. I think any scenario in which fans leverage Jurich out of town is one in which the university and athletic department wind up losers. The resulting fire sale on coaches would be spectacular. There’s a question to be posed: If one of the top athletic directors of the past decade by any objective measure isn’t good enough for you, who is? If you thought the post-Petrino crash was painful, I think the post-Jurich one would be worse. Life would go on. But it would be a difficult haul, especially when you’re paying about half of the BCS average for A.D.s
None of this is to say that Jurich hasn’t made mistakes.
He should’ve known better than to gig his own fan base. They had a right to be upset. They never were angry that they weren’t going to the Orange Bowl. They were angry, as I believe I have written, that they aren’t beating the Syracuse Orange. They’ve got legitimate concerns, and it would’ve been wise not to fan the flames. This season alone, they watched Kentucky dance away with the Governor’s Cup and Cincinnati — with not nearly the facilities or advantages of U of L — to the Orange Bowl after having won the Keg of Nails. I don’t know. I think I’d have put the salt away and stayed away from those wounds.
Still, I’m a little surprised at some of the vehemence of the opposition to him now. And as rankled as fans are at his comments, I’m sure he is at some of theirs, particularly given the fact that it is a fan base that he brought from second-class status in terms of facilities and academic performance and a host of other areas, to the Big East. Frankly, without his leadership, it’s hard for me to believe that U of L today would’ve been much more than Memphis is from an overall athletic perspective. (And yes, Memphis is in a bowl and just played for a national title in basketball, so I’m not saying that’s all bad!) I know, fans deserve a great deal of credit for their support and financial backing of these projects; I know the plans for Cardinal Park had been talked about for years before Jurich arrived. I also know that it didn’t get done till he got here, and likely wouldn’t have unless he had come and put together the team of donors whose names dot the facilities on Floyd Street.
Finally this. Since the soapbox is officially out! I don’t think it’s right for a coach’s kids to be ridiculed at school or his wife in accosted in stores. I think this city and fan base should be better than that. Complain, criticize, whatever, but understand there should be a line of civil, human behavior. Petrino endured these things too. Jurich, of course, has endured much worse.
So that about does it. Oh, yes. What the heck. To the emailer who said, “I understand your dad got forced out and you’re worried about keeping your job . . .” I think everyone in journalism today is worried about keeping his or her job. But my job security is not predicated on who I back or don’t back in my column so much as economic realities which, I admit, I hope do not turn too bleak! My dad volunteered for this last round, after a year of not-so-subtle hints that he was ready to retire early. He saw a crack in the door and jumped through it. Nobody had to push.
Which brings us back to the original question. My credential is safe. I’ve got good relationships with folks in U of L athletics, and many more among the faculty and administration outside of athletics. On the other side, U of L fans have been great to me from the minute I got here as beat writer, and they are a group that, like the athletic department as a whole, has gotten behind the university and allowed it to achieve on a level far beyond what its numbers would suggest.
And on occasion, both groups think I’m full of it. But that’s as it should be. I’m just glad they’re reading, and if you made it to the end of this opus, I’m particularly grateful.