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Mark Coomes: U of L to the ACC gives entire region a national prestige boost

by Mark Coomes

Get ready for a lot more of this ….

The University of Louisville was invited to join the Atlantic Coast Conference today.

That you already knew.

This is the rest of the story. This is what really happened.

Flatt and Scruggs were booked at Carnegie Hall.

Mercedes-Benz hired Click and Clack.

Happy Gilmore made member at Augusta National, and Rudy won the Heisman.

Forty years of thriving and striving paid off in Powerball proportions this morning when 13 of America’s finest universities (and basketball teams) unanimously asked U of L to join their tony little sports league.

Little Brother is seated at the grownups’ table now.

Entrance to the highbrow, high-flying ACC culminates a rubes-to-riches rise for U of L. From the boondocks of the Missouri Valley to the middle-market limbo of Conference USA to the collapsing supernova that is the late, great Big East, U of L fought for every ascending rung on the social ladder.

It had to. Except for schools to the manor born, like Duke, Virginia and North Carolina, there are no shortcuts to the gated community at the end of Tobacco Road.

“Louisville-ACC deal is a win-win,” tweeted political pundit Howard Fineman, a U of L law school grad. “Sports are fantastic; academics rising fast. (Basketball) is bootstrapping U of L the way it once did Duke.”

True that. But you know what else happened today?

U of L bootstrapped us all.

The entire metropolitan area – the entire state, in fact – got a long-needed, long-awaited booster shot of national prestige. The ACC is a rising tide that will raise every boat in our harbor.

No, it’s not a new auto plant or a $1 billion grant to Jefferson County Public Schools. But this is big. And big league.

Aside from a single Saturday in May, Louisville has forever been a Triple A kind of town – at best. Ascending to the ACC gives us a toehold in the majors. The ACC ranks among the genuine elite, athletically and academically. It gives us something to aim at and aspire to.

Sometimes it’s healthy to play Keeping Up With The Joneses.

Louisville historically has done too little of that. That’s why Indianapolis and Nashville so long ago passed us by. It’s why Cincinnati considers itself superior and Lexington no worse than equal.

ACC membership helps change that. Or improve it markedly, at least.

The Cardinals’ flight to the ACC, scheduled for arrival in 2014, is an unadulterated boon, even for the half-million University of Kentucky fans who dwell in the Louisville MSA. God bless the Wildcats, but their teams don’t make this county any money. Neither, directly, does the University of Kentucky itself.

What’s good for U of L is good for Louisville as a whole. And moving to the ACC is very good for U of L indeed.

Over the past 40 years, U of L, as a school and a sports franchise, has grown at a robust rate that no other segment of this community can remotely match. They’ve gone nowhere but up since Denny Crum arrived in 1971 – and they’ve pulled the entire town up with it.

If only the rest of the city showed such pluck and drive; such disdain for embracing the tired old excuses; such bone-deep unwillingness to settle for second best.

The ACC has added seven new members since 2004. All are blessed with greater natural gifts than U of L.

Boston College, Pittsburgh and Miami boast larger TV markets. Florida State and Virginia Tech, who once toiled with U of L in the old Metro Conference, blasted out by excelling at football, the Moneyball of intercollegiate sports.

Syracuse had old-school tradition (Jim Brown, Ernie Davis), mighty media connections (Bob Costas, Marv Albert, Mike Tirico) and thousands of alumni living in New York.

Notre Dame is Notre Dame. The Golden Dome, the Gipper and Touchdown Jesus. NBC and, presumably, the pope.

Louisville had a horse race, some willpower and the leadership of three fiercely ambitious men: Jurich, Schnellenberger and Crum. Countless others aided the Cardinals’ upward flight, but there’s no doubting the identity of the chief pilots.

Crum was Lucky Lindbergh, the dashing flyboy who lifted the Cardinal basketball program from good to great.

Howard Schnellenberger was Chuck Yeager, the daring test pilot who rescued football from the obituary section and forced it onto the front page.

Tom Jurich? He’s Sully Sullenberger, miraculously navigating the increasingly wild, unfriendly skies of College Sports Inc.

He flew U of L to new heights by commandeering a spot in the Big East. Then when the league’s death spiral reached an irreversible pitch, Jurich ejected. And not a moment too soon.

Jurich, with an exit strategy that was exquisitely timed and targeted, parachuted out of the Hindenburg and steered his school to the sweetest, softest landing imaginable.

On the job at U of L since 1997, Jurich is the most impactful, indispensable and indefatigable athletics director in America. That’s impossible to argue anymore. But that’s another story for another day.

Today is an occasion of celebration.

U of L has made a move that elevates the entire city a notch or two.

It’s a boost this town hasn’t experienced since Jurich’s spiritual forefather, Matt Winn, made American icons out of the Kentucky Derby and its home, Churchill Downs.

This city – and this state – badly need more movers and shakers who, by improving their little corner of the commonwealth, bathe the lot of us in reflected glory. Thanks to the ACC’s newest member, we all shine a little brighter today.

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