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ACC formally welcomes Louisville into conference

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com

Tom Jurich, the Louisville athletic director, told a story on Tuesday about a long-ago phone conversation he shared with ACC Commissioner John Swofford – a call Jurich said was “the most fruitful phone call I ever made.”

Jurich spoke with a hint of emotion in his voice at a press conference in Louisville, Ky., where the ACC formally welcomed Louisville as the conference’s 15th full-time member. It had, as Swofford said earlier in the press conference, “been a long time in the making” – more than 18 months, to be exact.

To Jurich, though, the wait might have seemed longer. Amid the ever-changing landscape of college sports in recent years, with schools switching conferences to chase the promise of increased revenue, Jurich called Swofford and asked for a chance.

“I always thought the most fruitful phone call I ever made was to call you and ask you to consider us,” Jurich said, speaking to Swofford. “And you did, and you looked at everything, and I always believed we were a great fit.”

Louisville replaces Maryland, which, like Louisville, is celebrating its home in a new conference. Maryland in November 2012 announced its intention to leave the ACC and join the Big Ten, and the ACC and the school have since been entangled in a legal dispute over Maryland’s exit fee.

The ACC is seeking more than $52 million from Maryland, which on Tuesday became an official member of the Big Ten. The school filed a counterclaim against the ACC in January, alleging it was illegal for the ACC to force Maryland to pay more than $52 million to leave the conference.

During a phone interview last week, Swofford said “the legal process will take care of itself in time.”

“Our league and our member schools feel that Maryland certainly had the right to leave if they chose to do so, and they did,” Swofford said. “And at the same time they had an obligation of membership to the conference in terms of the rules surrounding how you leave.”

The Louisville-for-Maryland trade, at least on the surface and in the field of play, appears to benefit the ACC.

Louisville’s arrival bolsters the ACC’s competitive balance in the two sports most responsible for driving a conference’s revenue and prestige. The Cardinals are 23-3 over the past two football seasons, and they ended each of them ranked among the top 15 teams nationally.

In men’s basketball, Louisville has a long tradition of success – winning three national championships, most recently in 2013 – and it has won at least 30 games in each of the past three seasons. During his opening comments on Tuesday, Swofford boasted about the ACC’s strength in basketball.

“(It’s) more than fair to say from a historical and success standpoint we are now the strongest collection of basketball programs that has ever been assembled in one conference,” Swofford said.

With Louisville now an official member of the ACC, the conference is home to five of the top 12 most victorious programs in college basketball history. Three of the top seven schools with the most Final Four appearances are now in the ACC, as well.

In addition to its success in football and men’s basketball, Louisville brings strong baseball and women’s basketball programs. Its baseball team has reached the College World Series the past two years, and in March. Louisville reached an NCAA tournament regional final in women’s basketball.

“The addition of Louisville to the ACC strengthens considerably a number of sports, most notably football, men’s and women’s basketball and baseball,” N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow wrote in an email. “They have the resources to compete at the highest levels.”

Louisville’s athletic department will be among the most financially sound in the ACC. When Jurich became the school’s athletic director in 1997, he said on Tuesday, the school’s athletic department budget was $14.9 million. This year, he said, it’s $86 million.

During Jurich’s tenure as athletic director, the football team has moved into a new stadium – Papa John’s Stadium, which opened in 1998 – and the men’s basketball team has moved into a new arena. The Cardinals’ KFC Yum! Center, which opened in 2010, is considered to be among the best college basketball arenas in the country.

“They’ve developed a physical plan over there that is extraordinary, in terms of their facilities,” Swofford said last week. “And then their fan base, which is so large and rabid, and their brand has just continued to evolve and develop. You know, I think most people look at Louisville’s addition to the ACC as a real win-win.”

The questions about Louisville’s fit in the ACC aren’t based in athletics but instead on academics. The ACC has long prided itself on its mission, in part, to be an organization of similar academic institutions. Louisville, though, is trying to improve its academic reputation.

The university is ranked No. 161 – the lowest of any ACC school – in the most recent U.S. News and World Report national university rankings. In those rankings, Louisville is far below the next closest ACC school, which is N.C. State at No. 101.

James Ramsey, the Louisville president, spoke on Tuesday about strengthening the university’s academics. Ramsey hopes that Louisville’s arrival in the ACC, alongside a mix of some of the most highly-regarded private and public universities in the nation, will have a positive effect for Louisville.

“This is the academic neighborhood that we want to be associated with and affiliated with,” Ramsey said during the press conference.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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