UofL athletics director Tom Jurich and Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter, in the less-awkward times of 2010

Papa John’s founder and CEO John Schnatter made headlines Wednesday by leveling harsh criticism at the University of Louisville Athletic Association’s leadership, telling fellow members of the university’s board of trustees that “until you fix athletics, you cannot fix this university.”

And what exactly “scares” Schnatter about UofL’s athletics department and its leadership? Two days later, he’s still not telling anyone, and leadership at the university maintains that they haven’t a clue what he’s talking about.

Though anyone listening to Schnatter’s words in that trustees’ meeting would infer that his criticisms were leveled at athletics director Tom Jurich, he denied afterward that he was picking a fight with Jurich and rather cryptically replied “just read the paper” when asked what problems need to be fixed. Schnatter has declined to elaborate further as of Friday afternoon.

UofL’s interim president, Dr. Greg Postel, stated Wednesday that Schnatter even mischaracterized a private conversation the two had about Jurich supposedly being “invisible” and unaccountable to the trustees, adding that the two spoke to each other and he believed it would be easy to get Jurich to appear before the board.

Asked by IL Friday if Postel had since discovered what “fix” Schnatter was referring to in the meeting, UofL spokesman John Karman replied, “in a word, no.” Asked if David Grissom, the chair of the board of trustees, knows what Schnatter was referring to, Karman stated: “I don’t think so. I don’t know who does.”

UofL athletics spokesman, Kenny Klein, has further disputed another claim of Schnatter’s that the $60 million expansion of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium — the home of UofL’s football team that Schnatter jokingly referred to as “my stadium” Wednesday — was over budget. He added that the department has had a balanced budget for the past 15 years. Asked if Jurich or anyone in the department had any idea what “fix” Schnatter was talking about, Klein replied: “We do not. We have a terrific leader.”

At a press conference Friday, UofL football coach Bobby Petrino called Schnatter’s comments “just unbelievable to me,” going on to praise Jurich as the best athletics director in the country who has turned the school into a powerhouse.

Schnatter has taken on a much greater role at the university since the beginning of the year, appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin to the board of trustees and then joining the board of the UofL Foundation. The university and its men’s basketball programs have withstood scandal after scandal in recent years and a major reform effort is underway to restore confidence in the foundation — with Schnatter often strongly voicing his displeasure with past leadership of the nonprofit managing UofL’s endowment during those board meetings.

In the absence of answers on why Schnatter made his comments, speculation has — quite predictably — run rampant across Louisville.

Did Schnatter actually have damning evidence of financial wrongdoing by the athletics department, or was he just caught in a moment of empty grandstanding? Perhaps he was leaked bombshell information unearthed in the continuing forensic audit of the foundation that implicated Jurich or his department, but is choosing not to let the public know those specifics? Or maybe this was an awkward commentary about the nature of the modern NCAA, where revenue and spending on athletics — including multimillionaire coaches and corporate-sponsored state-of-the-art facilities — has turned into an obscene money-making enterprise, all while academics are left neglected?

In truth, that is a question that Schnatter himself has to answer, which was a point emphasized in a column by The Courier-Journal’s Tim Sullivan on Thursday. Noting that a trustee and donor of his stature could have a private audience with Jurich any time he wanted, Sullivan wrote: “That Papa John chose to make his case in public and too vaguely is harder to swallow than an anchovy.” Noting some hypocrisy in the air, he added that after Schnatter dropped his bombshells in the board meeting, he “promptly skulked back to the shadows, seeking the same invisibility he attributed Wednesday to UofL athletics director Tom Jurich.”

Mike Rutherford of the UofL athletics fan site Card Chronicle also took some shots at the appropriateness of Schnatter’s comments. While conceding that no one at the university or its athletics department should be immune from criticism, Rutherford took issue with those in the media or rival fans who praised Schnatter for “a rant that sounded more like the Kenan Thompson ‘Fix it!’ character from SNL than anything else.”

“What exactly about Schnatter’s rant do you agree with?” wrote Rutherford. “And you can’t just say ‘the fact that he’s mad about things and willing to say something about it.’ I get that it’s modish these days to speak out strongly against things you think are bad or that need to be changed without serving up factual specifics or any sort of alternative plan of attack of your own, but that doesn’t make it applaudable. We’re smarter than this. I know we are.”

Rutherford continued:

“The easiest thing to do with all the events of the past year-and-a-half has been to immediately take an extreme position and hold firm in the face of everything that transpires in the succeeding months.

Pitino has to be fired

Pitino has to stay forever

Go get ’em Papa

No one should ever criticize Tom Jurich for anything he’s ever done

I urge you not to do this.

It is perfectly ok to recognize that there are things that have happened at U of L in the recent past and perhaps things that are still going on today that shouldn’t have happened or shouldn’t still be happening. You can do this while also believing that Papa John’s comments from Wednesday were disingenuous and held no actual weight.”

The regular board meeting of the UofL Athletic Association is next Thursday, and as its new board member, John Schnatter will have every opportunity to bring up the specific concerns he has to Jurich’s face — either in public or a closed executive session. Until these differences are ironed out, the awkwardness will remain thick in the air at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]
Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]