Since Syd made the decision to go to UL, we have paid more attention to what happens to the Cardinals. Obviously the men won the National Championship in basketball and the women went to the championship game, but they have also seen success in other sports.
I saw a link to the following article on Twitter today. I don’t know much about the history of the athletic department, but according to this article, it was in bad shape. The author talks about the improvements that have occurred in the program and the steps that were taken to bring that about. He refers to the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, which interested me as well. Thought it was worth sharing.
You can read the original article on the Forbes website.
Louisville athletics was a pariah. An organization so mis-aligned, so bloated in inefficiency that the very conference it helped form had sued to expunge the university from its ranks. A desperate attempt to prevent the department’s disease of non-compliance from spreading to the other members of the league. There was little hope for Louisville, its faith seemingly sealed as terminal.
In his influential work on organizational management, “Good To Great”, author Jim Collins refers to the circumstances Louisville had fallen into as the “Doom Loop”. The organization lacked internal accountability, failed to achieve credibility within its own community and had lost all authenticity with the college athletics community as a whole. It was not that the department did not want to change, but rather that it lacked the discipline to do so.
Those were the circumstances that faced Tom Jurich when he became the athletic director at the University of Louisville in 1997. Jurich understood that if there was any chance of salvation, he needed to reconstruct the athletic department to be built upon a foundation of accountability, integrity and honesty. Then, and only then, could a culture be born that would filter its way through the department and move it slowly out of a vicious cycle of disappointing results and stalled momentum.
“The department was out of control when it came to issues like compliance and Title IX,” says Jurich. “We were staring down the barrel of a gun and potentially facing the death penalty from the NCAA. Either we made a decision right then and there to change the culture once and for all or we would forever be mired in our own self-sabotage,” he adds.
For Jurich and his leadership team, part of that process involved confronting the hardest decision a manager must ever make – replacing individuals who did not fit within the cultural boundaries they set out for the department. In fact, within the first five years of tenure, there were more than 130 changes within the staff, or almost 50% of the entire department. Such high turnover is almost unheard of from any organization with the multi-million dollar revenues, and is testament to the dire situation Louisville found itself in.
According to Jurich, “The ride [Louisville] was embarking on wouldn’t be easy – we were going to need tough, self-motivated people who were selflessly driven by their passion for the department and the university as a whole. If they weren’t hungry and humble, they weren’t getting on the bus.”
Once the wrong people were off the bus, and the organization’s cultural foundation began to take shape, Jurich’s administration was only then able to begin to systematically address the issues that were plaguing the department. The most pressing of which was gender equity, or rather the total lack thereof.
“When it came to non-compliance with Title IX, Louisville was in dire straights,” says Jurich. “We had Lamar Daniel, a leading gender equity consultant, come to campus and tell us that we were the ‘worst program he had ever seen’. Here was someone who had spent over two decades conducting investigations for the Office of Civil Rights and who was practically at a loss for words on just how bad our situation was.”
While the problem Louisville faced was evident, the solution was less clear. At the time, the department’s budget was $14.8 million, or just 17% of the $85 million it had risen to today. Just about every area of the department needed improvement and additional resources. The problem was that not only did the Cardinals need to fundraise, but also that they needed to invest the majority of the money back into women’s sports, none of which would provide any financial return on investment.
“Our backs were against the wall, but we had no choice but to do what was right. I caught a great deal of criticism in those early days as we tried to pull ourselves out of the quicksand, but the reality is that without the tremendous support of the Louisville community and our boosters, we would have never made it out. ” Jurich explains.
In the words of Jim Collins, Louisville needed to confront the brutal facts of their current reality, while retaining resolute faith that they would prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulty. Breakthrough for organizations that face such adversity comes through making good decisions, each of which is meticulously implemented and accumulated one on top of the other. Yet more importantly, without the guidance of Jurich and his senior administration, whose keen leadership focused attention away from the disillusion of the circumstance and towards the delicious potential of the future, the Cardinals’ never would have made it.
Ever so slowly, Louisville began its slow climb out the college athletics basement and towards respectability. With a blue-collar like work ethic, the department inched towards ever-greater achievements, each victory built upon the last. Yet, while that work ethic Jurich had installed helped turn the tide for Louisville, many of its teams still failed to achieve their full potential. Like most organizations that make great strides in a short time, the greatest threat they face to continued progress is the stagnation of their culture.
His solution was the installation of a philosophy known as “Louisville First, Cards Forever” or “L1C4”. The concept was simple – the name on the front of the player’s jerseys was far more important than the one on the back. Pitino wanted his players to understand that they were playing not for themselves, not even for their teammates, but for the university community as a whole. It was no surprise then that the entire Louisville athletics department soon adopted the L1C4 philosophy as its own. After all, it was the perfect epitome of the cultural mindset Jurich began to implement within the organization when he arrived a decade earlier.
L1C4 came full circle for Louisville during the quarterfinal game of the 2013 NCAA tournament against the Blue Devils of Duke. Cardinals’ guard Kevin Ware landed awkwardly after attempting to block a basket, suffering a compound fracture to his leg live on national television. The gruesome injury sent a debilitating shockwave through the team, bringing to a grinding halt to the Cardinals’ seemingly unstoppable momentum. In a single moment, the dreams of the entire Louisville nation were brought to the brink extinction, resting precariously once again on the edge. Yet the Cardinals had been there before, had seen this void and in that very moment decided that this time was different, that they would not go quietly into the night again without a fight. The Cardinals rallied around Kevin Ware, his injury a profound reminder of just how far they had come and that they no longer had an opportunity, but rather an obligation to win. The rest of course was history.
Some 15 years after Jurich took over as athletic director, the Louisville Cardinals have made history. The university became the first to win a BCS football game, a national championship in men’s basketball, play for the national championship in women’s basketball, and make the College World Series all in one year. Even more significantly, the University received an invitation to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), a move that all but guarantees stability for many years to come in tumultuous college athletics landscape. For any other university, achieving even one of those feats would be cause for tremendous celebration, but for the University of Louisville, anything less would have been a disappointment.
By human nature, the majority of people do not want to hear that success comes from years of effort or discipline. They prefer to think that it emanates from some predetermined advantage or is just the luck of circumstance. The transformation that occurred at the University of Louisville was certainly not the inevitable, nor was it a function of circumstance. Rather, it is the culmination of years of calculated risk and exceptional hard work. More significantly, it serves as testament to the importance of visionary leadership, organizational buy-in, and the courage to carry on when everything seems against you.
Every morning, Tom Jurich asks his department to answer a simple question, “How are we going to wake up and become better as an athletic department next year?”
The University of Louisville stays humble and hungry.
This post was co-authored by Justin Vine.
Jason Belzer is Founder of GAME, Inc. and CSA, and a Professor of Organizational Behavior and Sports Law at Rutgers University. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBelzer.