Louisville officially joins the ACC, gives league quite the asset

What a difference a few years can make in college athletics -- at least, when the right people are in charge. And as Louisville officially joins the ACC today, the league is getting an athletic program that is one of the nation's best.

Louisville AD Tom Jurich, pictured with head men's basketball coach Rick Pitino, has completely overhauled the athletic program since 2000 and made it one of the nation's best.

Jamie Rhodes / USA TODAY Sports

What a difference a few years can make in college athletics -- at least, when the right people are in charge. And as Louisville officially joins the ACC, the league is getting an athletic program that is one of the nation's best.

The last time the ACC went through a round of expansion in the early 2000's, Louisville was an athletic program in transition. Athletic director Tom Jurich, hired in 1997, had a lot of work to do -- and that work took time.

That work was really a University-wide transition -- not just sports. But sports were the only part Jurich controlled. When the ACC was looking to add teams from the Big East, Louisville wasn't even a member yet. Even if it had been, neither the Cardinals' academic nor athletic profile seemed like a good match.

But in the year Louisville joined the Big East -- 2005, which was, ironically enough, a result of the ACC taking Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College -- Jurich's hard work began to really show itself.

Louisville finished 150th in the Learfield Director's Cup standings (which charts finishes in all sports) in 2002-03. That jumped to 106th in 2003-04. And in 2004-05, it jumped again -- all the way to 50th.

Louisville was 54th in 2005-06, but since, its worst finish has been 41st. If the current standings hold, Louisville is in 30th and it will be the Cardinals' best finish since 2006-07 (28th).

Louisville replaces Maryland in the league, a perennial presence in the top 50 or so of the standings (sometimes even the top 30). But this year, Louisville edged the Terps by two spots.

And the ACC could use a boost. Had Louisville been in the league this year, it would have given the ACC five teams in the top 30 -- over a third of its members.

The good news is that while Maryland had a lot of success in the non-revenue sports (which boosted its Director's Cup finishes), Louisville's success -- lately, anyway -- has come in the sports that people pay the most attention to.

In the 2012-13 year, Louisville became the first school ever to win a BCS bowl game, appear in the men's and women's Final Four and the College World Series in the same school year.

Since 2000, Louisville is the only team to win a BCS bowl game, get to the national championship game in basketball, the Final Four in women's basketball, finish second in the College Cup in men's soccer and reach the College World Series in baseball. And Louisville is one of six schools to have appeared more than once in a BCS bowl game, the men's and women's Final Four and the College World Series in that span.

The Cardinals have arguably seen their biggest growth in some of the biggest sports -- they've always been a basketball school, but now Hall of Famer Rick Pitino is at the helm and joins a loaded roster of coaches in the ACC. The Cardinals have a storied history, but a pretty darned good present, too, reaching the Final Four twice in the last three seasons and winning a national title in 2013. The ACC hasn't won a national title or reached a Final Four since, an extremely rare lapse for the league.

In spite of Florida State winning the national title this year, the ACC could still use a boost in football, too. Louisville welcomes back Bobby Petrino after Texas hired their former head coach Charlie Strong, who led the Cardinals to a 23-3 record over the last two seasons. Louisville has reached a bowl game for the last four years and won its BCS bowl game against Florida in 2012.

But obviously, this is a different level of competition in the ACC than the Cardinals faced in the Big East or the AAC. Everything is cyclical, but Louisville also finds itself in the Atlantic Division with Clemson and Florida State, two perennial powers that have found themselves again over the last few years. Bad news for everyone else in that Division.

Louisville has only played 85 games total against its current conference mates, and has an above .500 record against just two of the nine teams it has faced more than once. It has played six current ACC teams since 2012 and went 4-2 in those games, though.

Still, the ACC needs all the strength through the middle that it can get. There are plenty of average-to-middling teams in the league, but few that have been able to maintain the run Louisville has had of late. Can the Cardinals keep that going in a much more competitive ACC? It might take an adjustment, but the odds are that they'll represent the league very well.

The ACC has never had issues in women's basketball, and Louisville adds a powerful program to the mix there, too. The Cardinals have gone to 17 NCAA Tournaments and nine in the last 10 years, and have reached two Final Fours (both in the last six seasons), losing in the national title game both times.

The ACC's woes in the College World Series have been well-documented, but Louisville gives the league yet another option in a perennially strong conference to break the drought. The Cardinals have gone to the NCAA Tournament eight times, all since 2002, and three straight seasons. They've reached the College World Series three times, all since 2007, and have done that two years in a row.

The initial hesitation to add a school like Louisville was, no doubt, academics. West Virginia was passed over in the round of expansion 10 years ago because of that. The ACC prides itself on each of its members being in relatively good academic standing. Louisville is 161st in the most recent US News and World Report rankings -- the next-closest ACC school is 101st (NC State), and there are only two schools outside the top 70. Maryland, which leaves for the Big Ten, was nearly 100 spots better than Louisville at 62nd.

But as the landscape of college athletics continues to change, it has become more and more clear that the ACC had to value athletic success over academics. And choosing Louisville over, say, a UConn (57th) proves that the league is doing just that.

It might not work out -- the addition of Miami to bolster football certainly hasn't so far -- but Louisville is as well-positioned as any school the ACC could have added to replace Maryland to help the league's reputation and results in all sports.