If you’ve read this curious blog of mine, you know that I am an unabashed fan of University of Kentucky athletics, especially basketball. I hold it too high esteem, and I make no apologies for that. As a UK fan, I am now faced with one of our periodic conundrums of a bitter rival winning the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. In this case, it’s the University of Louisville.
I began writing this before Louisville beat Michigan, but I thought it better to wait a few days to finish. During the title game I found myself pulling for Louisville, yet disturbed when they won. A few days’ decompression has allowed me objectivity of a sort. Otherwise, this could have devolved into a pathetic rant fit only for a therapist to read. Now, let’s continue.
For the uninformed, UK and U of L are easily the two largest university in the great Commonwealth of Kentucky. The schools are similar with excellent professional schools. U of L, situated as it is in the city of Louisville, has an urban flare while UK has a more college town feel to it. Basketball, though, is where the schools are most similar. Both programs have been wildly successful and are money-making machines.
For the uniformed, you need to know a few things. Louisville is pronounced “Lou-a-vull.” Call it “Louie-ville” and you’re immediately exposed as an imposter. Also, it’s “U of L,” not “UL.” Kentucky is “UK”–never, ever “U of K.” Should you call it “KU,” just leave our state. We UK fans arrogantly call ourselves Big Blue Nation or BBN, for short. I have no idea what U of L fans call themselves.
We like to point out that UK has won EIGHT titles to U of L’s measly three. Truth be told, UK and U of L have each won three since 1980. Both have also had other Final Four appearances during that time. There have also been ups and downs for each program. U of L can claim to be the steadier of the two, having had only two coaches in the past 40 years. During that same period–coinciding with the retirement of Adolph Rupp–UK has had six coaches. Fans on both sides can debate these points until the listener is embarrassed to belong to either camp. Of such things, I suppose, are rivalries built.
I’ve always struggled with the U of L rivalry, because during my formative years as a fan I didn’t hate U of L. They were like any other state school. I pulled for them unless they played UK, which they never did. In fact, I had more bitter feelings toward Western Kentucky University, which had blown my beloved Cats out of the NCAA Tournament in 1971. Such players as Wesley Cox, Rick Wilson and Junior Bridgeman played at U of L, and I thought of them as Kentuckians, too. My hatred was reserved for Indiana University and the University of Tennessee in those days.
U of L won its first NCAA title in 1980 beating UCLA. I remember cheering for U of L. It had only been five years since UCLA’s last title (beating my Cats, no less), and I couldn’t stomach the idea of them winning yet another title. Plus, Darrell Griffith played for U of L. He was a Kentuckian, and easily the best player in college basketball. I liked him.
Then, it happened. Suddenly, U of L was exalted as THE best team in Kentucky, better than UK. One might say that was sensible, given that they had just won the title. UK, however, had won the title just two years previously, to go with the FOUR other titles won by Coach Rupp. We chafed at the notion that U of L was now better.
The drum beats started for UK and U of L to play. Nimrods in our state legislature proposed a LAW requiring it. This took priority over such things as our state’s crippling poverty and inadequate schools. Although no law was passed, the demands for a “dream” game continued unabated. (As an aside, playing UK is only important to our other state schools when they actually have a chance to win the game. It seems much less important if a beating is in the offing.)
Of course, it eventually happened but not in the regular season. In the 1983 NCAA Tournament, the Cats and the Cards met, and the Cards won 80-68. That game has taken on such mythical status that U of L fans now describe it as a thorough pummeling. That it was an excellent, thrilling OVERTIME game is largely forgotten. Also forgotten is that UK beat the Cards TWICE the next season–once in the regular season and again in the tournament. Oh well.
The remainder of the 1980’s consisted of U of L fans declaring their superiority much like UK fans typically do. Then, it happened again. The damn Cards won the title in 1986! By then, my ambivalence toward U of L had been replaced by jealously and seething hatred. I was in law school at UK (where I had also earned my undergraduate degree) and at the height of my irrational fandom. My only hesitancy is that I couldn’t help but like U of L head coach Denny Crum. He was an excellent coach and seemed like a good guy.
I guess I should also point out that the Cats CRUSHED the Cards 85-51 during that championship season. Freshman Rex Chapman–who spurned U of L for UK–lit them up for 26 points. While U of L fans probably wore their championship regalia, we had t-shirts that said: “CATS 85, NATIONAL CHAMPS 51.”
During this time, UK’s coach was Eddie Sutton. Besides crippling NCAA probation, Coach Sutton made one unforgettable contribution to UK lore. He is the one who coined the term “little brother” in reference to U of L. It stuck. For that, we thank him.
After ’86, U of L began a gradual slide into mediocrity while the arrival of Rick Pitino as head coach in 1989 pushed UK back to the top. Pitino won the title in 1996 and was runner-up in ’97. Then, he made his ill-fated departure to the Boston Celtics. UK didn’t miss a beat, winning the title again in ’98 under Tubby Smith.
Of course, Pitino famously returned to the Bluegrass State in 2001, at LOUISVILLE, re-stoking the hatred, at least of him. Oddly, though it wasn’t until 2012 that either program won another title. Now, we have them back-to-back, and IT IS ON again. I, for one, am glad to see it, but there are legitimate concerns about keeping the peace in our fair commonwealth.
With the rivalry white-hot again, our state is torn asunder. Well, not really. Most Kentuckians are UK fans. By “most,” I mean virtually everyone. We do have some risk of driving a wedge between our largest city, Louisville, and the rest of the state. Of course, we already don’t think of Louisville as being part of Kentucky. It might be in Indiana or even Ohio for all we know. Regardless, we should make an effort to get along now. Both fan bases have recent success to embrace.
The main problem is that the fan bases hate each other. We Kentucky fans think of the U of L faithful as chinstrapped, knuckle-dragging, troglodytes whose penchant for angry, drunken rages is exceeded only by their desire to fight. The U of L crowd views us as pompous, self-important, egotists who insist that the Cats are always the best, regardless of overwhelming contrary evidence. Both crowds are right, of course. How, though, can we bridge the gap and allow each to enjoy its own success?
First, we should embrace the commonalities of our two cultures:
- Both universities are in Kentucky, although–as noted above–U of L’s exact location is unknown.
- U of L’s mascot is the cardinal, Kentucky’s official state bird. UK’s is the wildcat, the official state woodland beast of Kentucky.
- Each school prefers a truncated version of its nickname–Cats and Cards, as opposed to Wildcats and Cardinals.
- Each logo bears a fierce caricature of its mascot. Even the most die-hard Card fan must admit there is only so much that can be done to make a cardinal frightening. They’ve done the best they can with it.
- Rick Pitino returned both schools to prominence.
- Neither school is Duke.
- Both schools hate Indiana University.
- U of L is in Jefferson County, home to the most Cards fans AND UK fans.
- Both fan bases are excellent at producing insulting or angry t-shirts:
- Basketball is the most prominent feature of both universities, rather than some haughty, egg-headed academic program.
Based on this common ground, I propose we move forward, if not together, then certainly without the animus which has marked our past association. Toward that end, I offer several suggestions to my fellow UK fans to smooth the waters:
- Let us avoid calling U of L “little brother” or posting any memes like this one:
- Do not continue to point out that EIGHT NCAA titles are far superior to THREE. This will only antagonize them, plus it requires them to do rudimentary math.
- Under no circumstances should we write poorly constructed limericks like this one:
There once was a coach named Rick
His style was flashy and slick
One night after dinner
He met a real winner
Now they call him Coach Rick the Quick
- Do not point out that Pitino has referred to UK as the “Roman Empire” of basketball and “Camelot.”
- Do not emphasize that UK has won more basketball games than any college team ever. Ever. In the history of mankind. Ever.
- It is petty to continually note that UK has won 7 of the last 10 meetings between the two schools.
- It is even more petty to point out that UK is 21-12 in the series since 1983.
- Do not mention that UK won its third NCAA title before Rick Pitino was born.
- Do not magnanimously congratulate U of L fans on their big win. Nothing infuriates them more than UK fans patronizing them with insincere praise.
Any of these actions will just make matters worse. The U of L fan will foam at the mouth and start pointing to football, baseball, women’s basketball and softball as proof of Louisville’s superiority. You, then, might start raving about cheer-leading and the rifle team. Inevitably, the U of L fan will want to fight you. (Trust me on this one. It always happens). You both may then inexplicably hurl homophobic slurs at each other. Nothing good will come of this.
The last time I encountered a Louisville fan, we had a dust-up over his sitting in my seat. Nevertheless, I’m pleased to report that my personal animus has receded to the point that I actually wanted U of L to beat Michigan. As I have aged, my self-esteem is longer wholly dependent on whether a group of strangers wins ball games. Family and friends are now more important. Of course, my beloved Cats are family, and the Cats have the Number 1 recruiting class next year–perhaps the best class EVER. You better button down those chin straps. See you next season.