In Airball, J. Bruce Miller’s account of Louisville’s pursuit of an NBA franchise, the local attorney regularly references the “Ruppians.” He defines the group as the powers that be in the Derby City that made life difficult for the group attempting to bring professional basketball to our city. Notable “Ruppians” include the University of Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich and of course men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.
After reading Airball for the first time in middle school, I came to the realization that the Louisville sports landscape begins and ends with these two men. Nothing big will happen without their blessing. It sounds almost mob like, because it is. After all, Pitino’s program is the only college basketball team that is ranked in the top 25 most profitable college teams.
Within this paradigm shift commonly referred to as conference realignment, football (not basketball) is king. College football television deals are what makes this carousel go round. The University of Texas’ new Longhorn Network is what forced Texas A&M to the SEC and start this mess. That allowed Pittsburgh and Syracuse to jump the Big East ship and now leaves both conferences with huge questions, and Louisville literally caught in the middle.
Louisville is both figuratively and literally in the middle of the Big East and Big 12. It’s far enough east for it to make sense to have membership in the Big East. It’s also far enough into the middle of America to stake a claim to the Big 12.
Over the weekend the buzz grew deafening regarding the Big 12 inviting Louisville to join its ranks. While officially Louisville has yet to rule out this option, Rick Pitino essentially has.
In a blog post published yesterday morning, Pitino talked about the survival of the Big East. Not only did he leave out any mention of the Big 12, but he also talked about the “travel problem” teams west of the Mississippi face. Pitino cited the problems that other sports teams would face in a “mega football conference.”
To understand Pitino’s distaste for the prospect of Louisville in the Big 12 we have to understand his roots. Pitino is a Big East man through and through. He is from Long Island, he played for Providence. Heck, he coached the Celtics.
The Big East/Northeastern mentality is ingrained in Pitino’s DNA. It shows in how he coaches, recruits, and every facet of his program. A switch to the Big 12 is against every bit of that. That move would change everything about Pitino, he wouldn’t be able to be the same coach. How can Tom Jurich and Louisville athletics be sure that Pitino is up to make such a huge change so late in his career?
It’s easy to see why Cards fans would be excited by a move to the Big 12. First look at the basketball implications, the Big 12 wouldn’t have the depth that the Big East has had. Still, imagine the epic showdowns that we could see against teams like Kansas, Kansas State, and Texas. Louisville would bring tons of buzz to what is already a very strong basketball conference.
On the football side, the Cardinals would be entering the strongest conference in the nation. The promise of seeing some of the best teams in the nation every season would improve the program tremendously. Charlie Strong could scour Florida and tell high schoolers, “Hey, you are going to play against Texas, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma every year.” It would put the program on the next level and prevent U of L from playing in what will be an even more underwhelming football conference.
Many Cards fans expect Jurich and company to pounce on the opportunity to play among such prestigious programs. It looks appealing in so many different ways. Mike Rutherford, the man behind the popular blog Card Chronicle, said he would “almost guarantee making a move to the Big 12″ if it was available.
But how can we be sure that Louisville would take that chance?
When the formal invite to the Big 12 party comes before the Louisville Board of Trustees, what will Coach Pitino say? My money is on Pitino taking up the role of the skeptic, forcing school officials to choose between a better future (and bottom line) for their athletic program and upsetting the face of said program.
The fact is that Rick Pitino is Louisville basketball, and Louisville basketball signs the checks. If Pitino isn’t on board with a move to the Big 12, it’s not going to happen. No matter how hefty the resulting paycheck would be.