- Brett McMurphy, College football reporter
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For 11 excruciating days in November 2012, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich was miserable. He was a mess. Maryland had just announced it was leaving the ACC to join the Big Ten, and the ACC was expected to move quickly to replace the Terps.
The ACC had one last lifeboat for either the Cardinals or Connecticut to escape the sinking S.S. Big East. Louisville already had been left behind once, when the Big 12 chose West Virginia over the Cardinals in 2011.
"We were very disappointed," Jurich said of the decision.
Would Louisville be the bridesmaid again?
But 11 days after Maryland's announcement, the ACC invited the Cardinals, and Tuesday marks their first official day as an ACC member.
"Those were the toughest 11 days of my life," he said.
"It was a big weight off my shoulders. I didn't want to let the community or university down. This is a great rallying point. Joining the ACC gives everyone a great deal of pride."
This is the school's fourth conference since 1996. When UL joined Conference USA that year, it didn't take long for the other C-USA members to voice their opposition. The men's basketball program was on NCAA probation and the subject of a "60 Minutes" investigation, home football games were played in a minor league baseball stadium, and the school had serious Title IX issues.
C-USA schools wanted the Cards out, but commissioner Mike Slive wouldn't allow it. Jurich arrived at UL in 1997 and was welcomed to town by the football team finishing 1-10.
"We had a lot of work to do," he said.
Virtually everything has changed since for Louisville. In 2005, it jumped from C-USA to the Big East. In June 2010, Nebraska announced it was leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten, and the conference realignment merry-go-round started spinning out of control. In all, there have been 84 schools in 28 Division I conferences that have changed leagues since 2011.
Unlike the other changes, Louisville's move wasn't about expanding the conference's footprint. It wasn't about increasing the number of potential viewers to earn more money for the conference's TV network. It was simple: The ACC had to add the best available football program.
"It was indeed a unique set of circumstances," ACC commissioner John Swofford said.
Up to the time of Louisville's invitation in 2012, the ACC's success -- or maybe lack of success -- in BCS bowl games was downright embarrassing. ACC teams had played in 15 BCS bowl games, losing 13. The ACC needed to improve its football product immediately.
In the 2006 season, the Cardinals won a BCS bowl under Bobby Petrino (defeating ACC champion Wake Forest). Petrino left after that season, and the program dipped under his successor, Steve Kragthorpe. Jurich, who ousted hoops coaching legend Denny Crum for Rick Pitino in 2001, took a bigger gamble in 2009. This time, he replaced Kragthorpe with Charlie Strong.
Strong had plenty of interviews with programs before Louisville -- five in fact -- but was never seriously considered because, according to a source, university presidents were hesitant to hire a black man with a white wife. Strong even discovered on the way to one interview that the school had already offered the job to another coach.
While no one else dared, Jurich took a chance. He told Strong "you're my head coach" before Strong even interviewed. It was the most critical -- and arguably best -- decision of Jurich's career.
The gamble paid dividends. Under Strong, Louisville was 37-15 and went to four consecutive bowl games, including an upset of Florida from the big bad SEC in the 2013 Sugar Bowl.
Coincidentally, the same year Louisville received its ACC invitation, it enjoyed a season unmatched in college athletics. During the 2012-13 school year, the Cardinals won a BCS bowl; Pitino's men's basketball team won the national title; the women's basketball team was national runner-up, and the baseball team made the College World Series.
All of that success didn't go unnoticed.
"The University of Louisville and what they've been able to accomplish, specifically the last 15 years, is remarkable," Swofford said. "There's no question they continue to be on an upward trajectory. The Louisville fan and alumni base brings a lot of energy and that will fit in well within our collective institutions.
"It's so gratifying that we are finally at the point where they will begin competing in the ACC and there are so many positives from both the league and Louisville's perspective. It's definitely a win-win."
Six months before Louisville got the invite, the league had a different vibe. In May 2012, ACC members openly questioned if they should bolt for the Big 12. Florida State's board of regents chairman and even coach Jimbo Fisher talked about joining the Big 12, while Clemson's board of trustees met and said if the Tigers "received a viable option by any league, we will consider it."
The speculation only increased after Maryland left the ACC.
Besides the possible defections to the Big 12, in December 2012 there were various media reports speculating that the Big Ten was looking to add two ACC schools -- North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia reportedly were the most likely targets -- to get to 16 schools and, more importantly, increase the value of the Big Ten Network.
The perception was the ACC was weak and vulnerable, but that all changed on April 22, 2013. The 15 ACC institutions, including Notre Dame, signed a grant of media rights through 2026-27, a landmark moment in league history. The grant of rights makes it financially untenable for a school to leave the league, guaranteeing that for the 14 years of the deal, a school's media rights, including revenue, for all home games remain with the ACC regardless of the school's affiliation.
"With our schools solidifying their commitment through the grant of rights, it not only addressed the many unfounded rumors regarding the ACC but it also settled the national landscape," Swofford said. "Which I know was welcomed by many."
Nine months later, the ACC's momentum continued as the league won two BCS bowl games. Clemson beat Ohio State in the Orange Bowl and Florida State beat Auburn for the BCS National Championship. In a span of 72 hours, the ACC suddenly had won as many bowl games as it had in the first 13 years of the BCS.
Swofford said it was gratifying to see the ACC's success last season, which resulted in the league's first football title since 1999. The ACC also had 11 bowl teams, an NCAA record for one conference.
"The optics of having Clemson win the Orange Bowl and then Florida State win the national championship has provided nothing but positive dividends," Swofford said. "We had 11 teams that played in bowl games last year and when you combine all of these aspects, it creates a lot of positive momentum as we look ahead."
It's hard to imagine who has more momentum going forward: Louisville or the ACC. The ACC now boasts a geographic area that will contain the most television households and highest population of any conference in the nation. The conference projects that by 2030, 55 percent of the United States' population will lie within the Northeast and Southern states, i.e., prime ACC territory.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are flying high.
"The ACC is the perfect fit for us," Jurich said.
UL now belongs to the only Power 5 conference with more than half of its member institutions among the U.S. News & World Report's 50 Best Colleges.
Not bad for a school that was nearly evicted by Conference USA and got passed over by the Big 12.
Louisville, which was essentially kicked out of Conference USA and passed over by the Big Ten, is now joining the ACC with momentum behind it that can only help the league's image.