11/28/2012 02:02 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

Louisville Arrives, As Sports Boosts Town And Gown

WASHINGTON -- Feel free to dismiss what I am about to write as a shameless act of homerism, but so be it. Here we go: Louisville, the city and the university, are about to become a hot commodity.

This is a story about how college sports can -- and in this case, I hope, will -- vivify the intellectual, cultural and economic life of an old, but now very much alive, industrial city in Kentucky.

If you are a restaurateur, bourbon drinker or college student, head to Louisville. If you are a writer, professor or researcher, consider doing the same.

This might not matter to most of America, but it matters to me, a man who began his career in Louisville and who graduated long ago from what is now the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. (Justice Brandeis was born and reared in the city, and his remains and those of his wife are buried beneath the law school portico.)

The big news, every sports fan knows, is that the U of L is moving its athletic affiliation from the rickety Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference, a venerable league whose founding members include the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Coach K U (otherwise known to the world as Duke University).

U of L is one of the oldest colleges in the country, founded (after a fashion) in 1798, but for most of its life it was a modest commuter school with a ramshackle campus wedged between railroad tracks and a grain elevator.

When I arrived in the city to work at The Courier-Journal in 1973, the college Cardinals were part of the old Missouri Valley Conference and dueled with the likes of Western Kentucky, Drake and Wichita State universities. The Cards were good but largely unnoticed outside their home city. U of L had few dorms, and almost no one lived on the campus.

As for the law school, it was a solid local institution, founded in 1846, with good teachers and a night program, in which I enrolled in the fall of 1975 while I was covering the state legislature. I would arrive late for night classes, but couldn't sneak in because of the ancient, creaky wooden stairs.

In the intervening years, U of L's sports program has grown and moved from the MoVaC to the now-extinct Metro, to the now-wobbly Conference USA, to the Big East and now to (one has to hope) the summit. Along the way, the basketball team won two national championships.

Meanwhile, under aggressive local political and academic leadership, the university sprang to life academically and institutionally. The campus now is a lovely place, though many of the railroad tracks are still there. An ever-greater percentage of students live in an ever-expanding number of dorms. And the school is among the leaders in the country in the number of Fulbright scholarships received each year.

The law school now ranks number 89 in the country, modest enough but competitive with state schools such as Kansas and Nebraska and ahead of schools such as Syracuse.

There is still a long way to go, for sure. But this is one of those rare cases in which athletic prominence can help push a university toward true excellence. The president of the school, Dr. James Ramsey, thinks that way, I know, and so do civic and political leaders.

Like my hometown of Pittsburgh, which is now driven by "eds and meds" -- education and medical care -- and which was rescued psychologically by sports, the city of Louisville has a chance to be rise with education, entertainment and tourism (and a good medical center).

What could be more of a challenge, and an inspiration, for the U of L than to try to match wits as well as muscle memory with the likes of UVA and Duke? Laugh now, because it is laughable. The hope is that it won't always be.

If the Cards play their cards right.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law as the Louis J. Brandeis School of Law.