2013 was undoubtedly the 'Year of the Louisville Cardinals'.
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich's nearly two decades of hard work resulted in the 'Year of the Cardinals'
During the 2012-13 academic year, Louisville became the first school in history to win a BCS bowl game, send both men's and women's basketball teams to the Final Four (Rick Pitino's Cards beat Michigan for the NCAA title; Jeff Walz Lady Cards finished as the national runner-up to UConn) and advance to college baseball's World Series.
Louisville's unprecedented success didn't happen overnight. In fact, Tom Jurich, Louisville's visionary athletic director, set the course for Louisville's unbelievable season sixteen years ago when he inherited a 1-10 football program; a men's basketball program that had run afoul of NCAA rules; and an overall athletics department that didn't measure up to Title IX.
Fast-forward to present and you wouldn't recognize the athletic department that has grown up along Floyd Street under Jurich's watch.
One of the most respected athletic director's in college athletics, Jurich's formula for across-the-board athletic success has been simple. He hires good coaches who can recruit, provides them support to succeed and has built an arsenal of new facilities to rival any school in the nation.
Charlie Strong's path to the 2013 Sugar Bowl championship is a prime example of the 'Jurich Way.'
After Steve Kragthorpe's disastrous three-year tenure, Jurich had to find someone who could quickly re-stock Louisville's cupboard with talent and get a once-proud program back on track.
Enter Strong, the defensive coordinator who helped lead Florida to a pair of BCS titles under Urban Meyer. With more than two decades of coaching experiencing, Strong had routinely been passed over by SEC AD's who couldn't overlook his perceived shortcomings. Jurich, though, knew Strong was exactly the right man to turn around Louisville's program.
It didn't take Strong long to reestablish a winning foundation. In his first season at Louisville, Strong re-instilled discipline and confidence in a team that finished 4-8 the year prior to his arrival, guiding them to an unexpected Beef O'Brady's bowl win over Southern Miss. Strong's quick initial success at Louisville translated directly to the recruiting trail. Having reenergized Louisville's program, Strong, and recruiting coordinator Clint Hurtt, returned to their old stomping grounds in the Sunshine state to restock the program with high-level recruits.
Teddy Bridgewater, a leading Heisman contender, led Louisville to the 2013 Sugar Bowl championship by upsetting third-ranked Florida
Strong's first major coup? Teddy Bridgewater, a U.S. Army All-American QB from Miami (FL) Northwestern Strong convinced to flip from hometown Miami after Randy Shannon's ouster following the 2010 season. Bridgewater's decision, combined with the coaching change in Coral Gables, helped persuade Florida stars Charles Gaines, Jermaine Reve, Gerod Holliman, Eli Rogers, Andrew Johnson, B.J. Dubose, Calvn Pryor, Terrell Floyd, Deiontrez Mount and John Miller to follow Bridgewater north to Louisville. That recruiting haul earned Hurtt National Recruiter of the Year honors and formed the backbone of the team that dismantled third-ranked Florida in the All-State Sugar Bowl last January in New Orleans.
The following year, Strong returned to Florida to land key linebacker recruits Keith Brown and James Burgess. Both former Miami commitments, Brown and Burgess started against Florida in the Sugar Bowl as true freshmen and played key roles in helping shut down Mike Gillislee and the Gators potent rushing attack.
After just three seasons, Strong has completely transformed Louisville's roster while building a team that will enter the 2013 college football season widely ranked in the Top 10 nationally. At the heart of Strong's rebuilding project are players from talent-rich Florida, many of which were either under-recruited or completely ignored by the team Louisville thrashed in a BCS bowl game seven months ago. 39 of Louisville's 85 scholarship players now hail from Florida -- more than any other school outside Sunshine state borders.
Strong's recruiting pipeline to Florida figures to grow even stronger after turning down the advances of SEC power Tennessee to sign a lucrative long-term deal to remain Louisville's head coach well into the future. Louisville's Sugar Bowl win over Florida and Strong's commitment to the school, combined with the Cardinals upcoming move to the ACC in 2014, have broadened the program's recruiting appeal across the Sunshine state.
While south Florida stars like Bridgewater formed the backbone of Louisville's Sugar Bowl championship squad, the bulk of Strong's impressive 2014 recruiting haul, currently ranked No. 20 nationally in 247Sports team rankings, hail from the northern part of the Sunshine state. With Hurtt on administrative leave to deal with allegations of NCAA violations from his time at Miami, Louisville assistant Ron Dugans, a former Florida State and NFL standout, has emerged as a major recruiting force from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.
Rated the No. 1 recruiter in the AAC, Dugans has emerged from Hurtt's considerable shadow to land seven of Louisville's 20 2014 commitments, including two-sport Jacksonville (FL) Trinity Christian star Isaiah Ford. Dugans also reeled in Desean Blair and George Rushing, two of the top wide receivers in Florida, underrated Jacksonville OT Kavaris Harkless and defensive stars De'Eric Culver and Jeff Williams, who hail from Tallahassee powers Godby and Lincoln, respectively.
With an upgrade to the ACC right around the corner, Florida talent will remain a key ingredient in Charlie Strong's formula for success at Louisville.
Rick Pitino won the NCAA title with several players who weren't his first choice on the recruiting trail
Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith, two of the brightest stars on Louisville's 2013 national championship basketball team, were widely considered recruiting 'misses' by Rick Pitino in 2010.
After narrowly missing on consensus All-American center Fab Melo, who chose Syracuse, Pitino turned to Dieng, an unknown -- and unheralded -- big man from Kebemer, Senegal via Huntington (WV) Prep. Dieng actually wasn't even considered the best prospect on his prep school team. That distinction went to Justin Coleman, a Top 25 guard who signed with Louisville, but failed to qualify academically and never materialized for Pitino's Cards. If not for Coleman, however, Pitino might not have discovered the 6'11 gem hidden at the small West Virginia prep school who eventually helped lead Louisville to its third NCAA championship while developing into an NBA first round draft pick.
The scrawny Smith, who arrived on Louisville's campus weighing just 140 pounds (maybe), seemed an even bigger reach for Pitino's program than Dieng. After missing on a slew of point guard recruits, including Corey Joseph, Pitino decided to take a flier on Smith, a high-scoring, but erratic guard who didn't register on anyone's Top 100, or 200, list coming out of South Kent (CT). Smith, who had no other scholarship offers, didn't play much as a freshman and nearly transferred out of the program. But Pitino kept Smith around and converted the out of control point guard into a shooting guard prior to his sophomore season. The rest is history. Smith, of course, earned All-American honors as a junior while leading Louisville to the national title, racking up NCAA Midwest Region MVP honors along the way after averaging 25 points in four regional wins, including 23 vs. Duke in the Elite 8.
The three other starters on Louisville's championship team -- PG Peyton Siva, SF Wayne Blackshear and PF Chane Behanan -- were all McDonald's Americans and major recruiting coups for Rick Pitino's program. But the main reason Louisville cut the nets in Atlanta's Georgia Dome in April was the depth Pitino assembled behind his five starters.
How deep were the 2012-13 Louisville Cardinals? Deep enough to overcome the loss of Kevin Ware, Louisville's top backcourt reserve who broke his leg in the regional finals against Duke.
Assembling the depth of talent to win the NCAA championship was mostly, well, good fortune for Pitino's program.
Luke Hancock, the team's sixth man who became the first reserve in NCAA Tournament history to earn Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors, played his first two seasons at George Mason. When Jim Larranaga left to replace Frank Haith as Miami's coach, the 6'6 Hancock decided to transfer to a bigger school. He strongly considered Michigan, the team he helped Louisville beat in the title game. But Hancock's ties to Louisville assistant Kevin Keatts (Hancock played for Keatts at Hargrave Academy) helped to seal the deal for the Cardinals. It didn't take the mature Hancock long to establish himself as a leader at Louisville and he was named a team captain, along with Siva, before ever playing a game for the Cardinals. That proved a wise decision by Pitino, as Hancock's steady leadership -- and clutch three-pointers -- helped Louisville overcome 12 point deficits against Wichita State and Michigan in the Final Four.
Louisville's two other top reserves, Kevin Ware and forward Montrezl Harrell, both signed with other schools coming out of high school.
Gorgui Dieng became a first round NBA Draft selection after spending three seasons working with Rick Pitino
The highly athletic Ware signed with Tennessee out of Conyers, Ga., but reopened his recruitment after Bruce Pearl was fired for violating NCAA rules. After a brief flirtation with UCF (Ware actually committed to the Knights), Ware, a bottom tier Top 100 recruit, eventually matriculated to Louisville, enrolling for the second semester of the 2011-12 season. Having arrived late, Ware struggled to learn Pitino's complex system and wasn't a factor as a freshman. But a strong offseason last summer helped Ware become a major factor in Louisville's championship run before becoming a household name after his gruesome injury against Duke.
Harrell, who signed with Virginia Tech coming out of Chatham (VA) Hargrave, wound up at Louisville only after the Hokies fired Seth Greenburg last year. A late bloomer who was undervalued by the major recruiting services, Louisville again tapped into Keatts' strong Hargrave connections (Keatts recruited Harrell to the prep school before joining Rick Pitino's coaching staff) to win a heated recruiting war over Kentucky, Florida and Cincinnati after the explosive Harrell received his release from Virginia Tech. Harrell, of course, was the star of Louisville's rousing comeback win over Syracuse in the Big East championship game.
Stephan Van Treese, who emerged as Dieng's backup during Louisville's championship season, actually left Pitino's program briefly last summer and was looking to transfer to another school. But after the Cardinals missed out on Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith, who signed with Florida, the bruising forward rejoined Pitino's program and played a key role behind Dieng. His play in the national semifinals helped Louisville overcome foul trouble to Dieng and a double digit, second half deficit against Wichita State to advance to the final game.
Recently elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame, Pitino has re-captured his recruiting swagger tarnished by an embarrassing personal scandal that surfaced publicly before the 2010 season. With that ugly episode clearly behind him, Pitino finds himself once again at the top of his game. After landing a Top 10 2013 recruiting class, headlined by PG's Chris Jones, the National Junior College Player of the Year, and Terry Rozier, a 5-star prep school recruit, Pitino has Louisville back in the mix with the nation's elite high school prospects.
Entering the July evaluation period, Pitino has already secured commitments from SF Shaqquan Aaron (No. 14 nationally by 247Sports), SG Jaquan Lyle (No. 26) and PG Quentin Snider (No. 42). That trio ranks No. 2 nationally in 247Sports team rankings, and figures to become even stronger if Pitino convinces a couple of his top frontcourt prospects, including Trey Lyles (No. 12), Cliff Alexander (No. 10), Jaylen Johnson (No. 62), Goodluck Okonoboh (No. 19) or Angel Delgado (No. 64) to join Aaron, Snider and Lyle at Louisville next season.
Fresh from winning the national championship, Rick Pitino's recruiting efforts are certainly picking up steam. With a move to the ACC looming, Louisville's Hall of Fame coach won't have to worry about developing hidden gems or rely upon recruiting fortune when his program joins the nation's best basketball league next season.
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