They're crazy about the Cardinals
This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The player the home fans came to see sprints downs the court, ball in hand, during the opening minute of Louisville's game against Big East rival Connecticut. Calmly, almost casually, the point guard freezes retreating defenders with a no-look pass that lands in the hands of a teammate waiting open at the basket.
Energized by the same showmanship that left the defense on its heels, most of the 16,483 fans rise to their feet. Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson is standing by his front-row seat and leading the cheers.
It's a scene that has played out in one form or another hundreds of times in this city, a place that ranks near the top of any list of the most basketball-mad major American cities without an NBA team.
The guard in this case was Shoni Schimmel, the newest star of the Louisville women's basketball team, but it hardly seems to matter. Cardinals are Cardinals.
There's a mini-museum dedicated to University of Louisville basketball in the atrium of the KFC Yum! Center, the stunning, gleaming 22,000-seat downtown arena opened in 2010 that resides a long rebound away from the Ohio River. Much of what is on display in the Hall of Honor relates to the history of men's basketball at Louisville, as might be expected of a program with two national championships, eight Final Four appearances and legendary names from Wes Unseld nearly 50 years ago to Rick Pitino today. But there's a hint of things to come in one of the first items a visitor sees, a mention of William Gardiner, the first men's basketball coach in school history, that notes he already was coaching a women's team at Louisville when he started coaching the nascent men's team in 1911.
Wind around the displays, past the life-size picture of former Louisville All-American and current WNBA star Angel McCoughtry that resides alongside similar photos of Unseld and Pervis Ellison, and you come to a section of the exhibit dedicated to women's basketball. A club team as early as 1908, Louisville women's basketball played its first official game in 1910, a year before the men, then struggled to maintain funding and schedule games until it was finally eliminated altogether in 1934, not to be revived until the dawn of the Title IX era in 1975.
In one of the final display cases there is a quote attributed to an anonymous women's player in 1909.
"There'll come a time some day when the U of L will have a team to be very proud of and the Red and Black banner will wave triumphant."
For the newest superpower in women's college basketball, one that rose from the obscurity of playing games in a high school gym little more than 20 years ago to now challenging Tennessee for the national attendance lead for the second year in a row, making that prediction a prophecy was a long time coming. What seemingly sprang to life almost overnight is instead the work of generations.
"It's crazy; I don't know how to really explain it," junior guard Tia Gibbs said of home games at the Yum! Center, where the team averages 10,473 fans a contest this season, second only to Tennessee's 13,038. "But even from the very first game I played here -- we played Tennessee and it was a sellout here -- and literally seeing 22,000 people in the stands watching you. We're kind of used to seeing that for a men's game, but for a girls' game it's unbelievable. It makes you want to do even better for the crowd; all these people came out to see you play basketball, to see Louisville basketball, so we try to represent our name even more. ...
"We're very fortunate, and we understand that very well. We try to put on a show."
It wasn't always that way for the women's team, even after the program was resuscitated from its four-decade hibernation. For that matter, it wasn't that way recently, as Gibbs can attest. A Louisville native who returned home after one season at Vanderbilt, she grew up going to just about every Cardinals home game. But not all of those were at Freedom Hall, the famed arena home to men's basketball until the Yum! Center opened. As recently as the 1989-90 season, the women played some of their home games at a local high school, and many of the games Gibbs attended were at Cardinal Arena, the much smaller on-campus companion to Freedom Hall.
Another Louisville native, senior Monique Reid, similarly grew up going to just about every game, often serving as the ball girl and hoping for high fives from stars such as Sara Nord. Louisville was consistently competitive under coaches Bud Childers, Martin Clapp and Tom Collen, making the NCAA tournament six times between 1993 and 2001, but it's safe to say prime seating in those days wasn't reserved for state officials.
"I always joke around that when I came, everybody sat in the front row," Reid said.
Playing on the big stage
Athletic director Tom Jurich, a field hockey dad with two daughters playing that sport for the Cardinals, is more familiarly known as the man who steered Louisville to the Big East, brought Pitino to town and presided over the move to the Yum! Center, a facility that allowed the Cardinals to rank third in men's basketball attendance last season, in addition to second in women's. But one of his first accomplishments after taking the job in 1997 -- one on which more than a few critics bestowed other labels -- was to move women's basketball into Freedom Hall on what soon became a permanent basis alongside the men's team.
When the time came to move Pitino's team to the Yum! Center, it was only with the understanding that it was a package deal. Each team has its own training room, locker room, players' lounge and coaching offices on-site.
"To me, it's all about opportunity," Jurich said. "These young women, whether they're in field hockey or basketball, they work just as hard as the men do in football or men's basketball. And they're just great ambassadors to this athletic program, they're great ambassadors to this city. And I wanted to make sure that we elevate everybody equally in the same way. That's why women's sports and Title IX have been such a very important thing to me."
Equal opportunity was one thing, but even playing in Freedom Hall and regularly winning 20 games, the Cardinals were drawing around 3,000 fans per game and barely cracking the top 40 in national attendance when Jeff Walz was hired as coach prior to the 2007-08 season. A Kentucky native whose younger sister, Jaime, is in the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame for her exploits as a high school basketball star, Walz understood the culture. He also understood that winning games was only part of the equation. He got his start in college coaching as one of Paul Sanderford's assistants at Western Kentucky. At a time in the 1980s and early 1990s when Louisville struggled to break four figures in attendance, Sanderford's teams drew well enough that even now, 15 years after he left Western Kentucky, eight of the top 10 single-game crowds in school history are from that era.
Some of the basketball lessons Walz took away from that experience explain the success his teams have on the floor. More of those lessons explain why he still takes every speaking engagement he can get despite a speech impediment that makes such endeavors a chore, and why he told anyone who would listen to come to a game and then send him an email for a full refund if they didn't enjoy themselves. Nobody ever took him up on the last part. And those lessons explain why no more than 10 minutes after a tough loss to Connecticut, the third loss in a row for a team beset by injuries, Schimmel and other Cardinals stood and signed autographs.
"I think it's important for the fans in women's basketball to actually become connected to a player on a personal level," Walz said. "Not just, 'Hey, that No. 23, she's a good player,' but when the kids go home they can say, 'Hey, Shoni signed this for me, Tia signed this.' Give them a more personal connection to our team. We work really hard on that."
It didn't hurt that Walz inherited McCoughtry, who became a three-time All-American on his watch. McCoughtry played her first college game in front of 1,123 fans in Freedom Hall. She played her final game in front of 18,478 in St. Louis in the national championship game. What came between those two events was attendance more than doubling for home games at Freedom Hall, leaving Louisville No. 10 in attendance even before it moved to the Yum! Center. The new arena isn't the proverbial house that McCoughtry built, but crowds like the one that came through the doors on a weekday night against Connecticut lend credence to the idea that it's the house she filled for women's basketball. Jurich made sure the team had the stage, Walz made sure people paid attention, but McCoughtry convinced a lot of them to keep coming back.
"It wasn't something that I was really expecting to have happen as quickly as it did, but at the same time, Angel was a big part of that," Walz said of the surge of interest. "The way she played was not the norm; it's not what you normally saw in a women's basketball game. You didn't normally see a player able to get up above the rim at times for rebounds, the way she could run the floor, the way she could score. So I think a lot of it had to do with the word finally getting out there that, 'Hey, you have to see this kid play.'"
McCoughtry moved on to WNBA fame. Louisville is minus two of arguably its three most valuable players this year after season-ending injuries to Gibbs and Reid, but still the fans come. Louisville games have become an experience, and an affordable experience at that. On this night, Dan Martens and his 12-year-old daughter actually came to see Connecticut, making the five-hour round trip from Vincennes, Ind., to see the team Louisville displaced from second place in home attendance. They may not come back as converted members of the Cardinals' faithful, but after watching a game from the first five rows for about what it would cost to see a high school game back home, they may well come back. And at some point, whether it's his daughter or her daughter two decades from now, the home team might win their allegiance.
"We would definitely come back," Martens said. "It's going to cost me 30 bucks in gas, 20 dollars for tickets; that's cheap entertainment. Fifty dollars for a memorable experience with my daughter? It's really cool."
It took a lot of pieces falling into place at precisely the right time to get to this point, but if you're looking for a reason why more people come to watch Louisville women's basketball than any team save the one in Knoxville, that sums it up. In the span of a generation, and without the aid of championship coattails, the people here have made Louisville basketball cool.
"When I was younger, I didn't really see too many girls playing basketball, so I thought they didn't," Reid said. "I didn't know girls played basketball. I just played because I liked it, and I played with the boys all the time.
"Most kids wanted to go to UConn, Tennessee; I wanted to go to Louisville, play for my hometown."
And more than a century after a prophecy, Louisville is finally wide awake to the presence of a program it can be proud of.