Best in College Sports: Louisville hoops' banner year leads to No. 1

 Rick Pitino has spent the past 12 seasons at Louisville, guiding the Cardinals to the 2003 national championship. (USATSI)
Rick Pitino has spent 12 seasons at Louisville, and he guided the Cardinals to the 2013 national title. (USATSI)

Rick Pitino remembers sitting at his home in Miami, watching Tom Jurich on television and nearly falling off his couch when he heard the Louisville athletic director announce to the world -- and, more specifically, the basketball-crazed commonwealth of Kentucky -- that the Cardinals would soon hire Pitino to replace the legendary Denny Crum.

It was March 2, 2001.

"I couldn't believe it," Pitino said when I asked him to retell the story all these years later. "I looked at my wife and said, 'Can you believe the balls on this guy?'"

No question, it was a bold move by Jurich. An unprecedented one even, best I can tell. I mean, athletic directors rarely speak at all during coaching searches, and they never publicly mention candidates by name. So Jurich violated all the presumed rules. He straight up said -- basically guaranteed -- that he would go hire Kentucky's former coach, who had recently resigned his position as CEO, president, general manager and coach of the Boston Celtics. And Jurich did this in front of television cameras, despite the fact that he hadn't talked to Pitino about it at all.

Best in College Sports:
No. 1 Louisville
Category Pts
Football 189
Men's BB 200
Women's BB 90
Baseball 73
WC (men's soccer) 73
Total 625
WC - wild card sport

Big balls, indeed.

Of course, 19 days later, on March 21, 2001, Jurich announced that he had made good on his promise and hired the future Hall of Famer. The rest, as they say, is history. Pitino has spent the past 12 seasons returning Louisville to its proper place in the sport while making three Final Four appearances and winning the 2013 national championship. It's among the reasons the Cardinals are No. 1 in this year's Best in College Sports series.

But it's not the only reason.

The women's basketball program is in good hands, too.

The Lady Cardinals also advanced to the national title game this season, where they were topped by Geno Auriemma's Connecticut team that became just as overwhelming in the postseason as Pitino's Cardinals.

So, yeah, the way things ended was disappointing for Louisville women's coach Jeff Walz. But the former Maryland assistant still made his fifth trip to the NCAA tournament in six seasons as a head coach, his second trip to the national title game before his 42nd birthday. That's strong, and it's why a reasonable person could conclude that no school's two basketball programs are better positioned collectively to succeed going forward than Louisville's. The fact that there's cohesion between the two programs makes things that much more enjoyable.

"I've never been in an athletic department with the culture that our athletic department has," Pitino said. "We all pull for each other so much, and it was amazing to see what went on this year."

Added Walz: "There's such a friendship -- and not just with our basketball players and with Rick's basketball players. It goes throughout the entire athletic department. It's truly a family environment, and that all starts at the top with Tom."

Talk to enough people connected to Louisville about Louisville, and you'll quickly realize that every conversation leads back to Tom Jurich, a man often described as the nation's best athletic director. Jurich is equal parts smart, confident and ambitious, and it's impossible to write about the success of the basketball programs -- and the other athletic programs, honestly -- without recognizing that none of it would be possible without him.

A different AD might never have been able to hire an icon like Pitino. A different AD might never have seen a future star in a 35-year-old Walz with no head-coaching experience. A different AD might never have been able to keep Charlie Strong in December when Tennessee tried to make him its head football coach.

"And women's volleyball is awesome, too," Pitino said. "And baseball is incredible. What Tom does is, let's say you were a part of the volleyball culture, what Tom would do is ask you for the names of the three best volleyball coaches in the country. Then he'd find out if they have integrity. Then he'd triple their salary to get them to come here."

"And then he lets you do your job," Walz added. "Tom is at your games. He's there to support you. But he's not a micromanager. He's not sitting there telling you, 'This is what I would've done.' And he gets you what you need. What do you need to compete and be successful? That's what we're going to get at Louisville."

As a result, they also get other things at Louisville.

Like trophies.

Lots and lots of trophies.

CBS Sports Insider

Gary Parrish is an award-winning college basketball columnist and television analyst for CBS Sports who also hosts the highest-rated afternoon drive radio show in Memphis, where he lives with his wife... Full Bio

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