Kentucky’s Uncivil War

The footy season starts in earnest this weekend, but here in Louisville all attention will be paid to an historic college basketball game ­– for the first time, the University of Louisville Cardinals will play the University of Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Final Four.

Wallabies vs. All Blacks? Collingwood vs. Carlton? Try more like Greeks vs. Persians. As one columnist put it, “Armageddon, catered by KFC.”

It’s not a heated rivalry, it’s a passion play. And Louisville is Ground Zero, almost evenly divided into red (Louisville) and blue (Kentucky) camps. Kentucky (UK) is the big favorite, No. 1 in the polls with a half-dozen future pros and a 36-2 record. Louisville (U of L) wasn’t supposed to be here with a rebuilding roster but boasts exceptional chemistry and the ability to find a way to win.

Until about 40 years ago, those also are the relative positions the schools held in the national college basketball hierarchy. That’s when U of L hired Denny Crum, a protégé of legendary coach John Wooden. And for the first time, UK had a challenger. In fact, since Crum arrived, U of L has won two titles and been to eight Final Fours; UK has won three titles and been to nine. Before Crum, UK had won four titles, U of L none.

Some background: In Kentucky, basketball is king. In a state with no pro teams, the college game rules. And UK is the state’s No. 1 team in hearts and minds. Except for Louisville, Kentucky is largely rural and conservative. Louisville is Kentucky’s largest city but utterly unlike the rest of the state – cosmopolitan, diverse, more liberal.

Because of UK’s dominant position, U of L’s supporter base is largely restricted to about a 30-mile radius of Louisville, although that’s about one-fourth of the population of the state. And even in Louisville, U of L-UK sentiment is close to 50-50. Here schoolyards, workplaces, playing fields are divided without rhyme or reason. It’s where you grew up, where you went to school, who your family cheered for, maybe generations ago. And there’s no neutral ground.

History has a lot to do with that:

UK won its first four titles under legendary coach Adolph Rupp without a single African-American player and is well-known for losing the 1966 title to Texas Western, which played five black starters, and not integrating until the early 1970s. From the early ‘60s until the mid-‘80s, UK had trouble recruiting blacks because of the perception that Rupp had been a racist. Louisville has had black players since 1962 and in the 1970s became a signature example of a successful integrated team under Crum. The best was in 1979-80, known as the “Doctors of Dunk,” an athletic, aggressive team that dunked at every opportunity and stormed to the school’s first national title.

Through all this, U of L and UK never met on the basketball court. They had played twice in the NCAA Tournament, the last in 1959 when U of L upset a heavily favored UK team to earn its first trip to the Final Four. UK refused to schedule “little brother” Louisville, especially after U of L had established itself as a comparable program in the 1970s and early 80s.

But in 1983, the teams were placed in the same NCAA Tournament region and met for the Mideast title. U of L won 80-68 in overtime to reach the Final Four. That – and a return meeting in the NCAA Tournament the next year, won by Kentucky – created enough pressure to establish an annual game between the rivals, the first since 1922. It’s called the Dream Game.

U of L won another title in 1986. Shortly thereafter, UK’s program was knocked backward by a scandal in which some players were accused of cheating on entrance exams and one recruit’s father received $1,000 in cash from an assistant coach. That cost them scholarships and a two-year ban from postseason play. It was the second major scandal at UK, which was banned from playing an entire season in 1952-53 after it was found some players were “point-shaving,” controlling the margins of games for gamblers.

Enter Rick Pitino, who coached at UK from 1989-97, who finally erased Kentucky’s recruiting disadvantage, got a steady stream of top players and won a national title in 1996, UK’s first in 18 years. But after the 1997 season, he left abruptly to coach the Boston Celtics. Still, the next year, UK won another national title and again had the upper hand in the rivalry. Until 2001 when Pitino returned – to replace Crum, who was retiring, at LOUISVILLE.

To a UK supporter, that was betrayal of the highest order. And resentment was fueled when Louisville’s program became more successful in the first decade of the new century. Then three years ago, UK hired John Calipari, who had taken Massachusetts and Memphis to Final Fours with a reputation as a tireless and successful recruiter and master tactician on the court. But a somewhat tarnished reputation, because both of those Final Four teams had their seasons expunged from the record books because of players’ misdeeds, though he was not implicated in either incident.

U of L’s superiority disappeared, and the teams fought recruiting battles over star players. The past three seasons UK again has been the top Cat in the state, though with a constantly changing lineup of players, most of whom play one season and then turn pro.

And Pitino has been damaged by his own scandal – an affair engendered an alleged extortion attempt and became messily public three years ago. UK’s recent success has grown UK’s fan base to some degree at the expense of U of L’s, and Calipari – who years ago was friends with Pitino, but no longer – has taken several opportunities to take potshots, at one point referring to UK as “the only real program in the state.”

Louisville supporters expect another scandal to tarnish UK someday and breezily regard the Wildcats as cheaters and their supporters as uneducated hayseeds. Kentucky supporters are infuriated that Louisville’s Cardinals have reached their lofty perch guided by their “traitor” coach and resent the implied superiority of the big city. Trash-talking, overreaction and heated arguments are the rule, and every game and result between the two schools creates another round. A brief example: On Monday, two patients at a dialysis clinic, ages 68 and 71, one a Louisville fan and one a Kentucky fan, got into a fistfight over the game. Here at the newspaper, we are accused daily – in generally unpleasant language – of favoring one or the other, sometimes from both sides over the same article. It’s safer for a U of L supporter and UK supporter to discuss politics than basketball.

And so they will tip off in New Orleans at 6:09 p.m. EDT Saturday (9:09 a.m. Sunday in Melbourne). UK is the pick of most, not just its supporters, to win the NCAA championship, for the first time in 14 years. It would not be overstating to say that a UK loss to Louisville on Saturday would be the most crushing defeat in school history. Or that a U of L win over Kentucky would rival the two national championships as the greatest in that school’s history.

Another Dream Game – or perhaps Nightmare Game – this time for the highest stakes in this basketball-crazy state. Or just plain crazy.

About Glenn Brownstein

I'm a red, white and blue supporter of the red, white and black who became a footy fan through ESPN telecasts in the 1980s and a buddy who founded the American version of the game. Yup, I chose the Saints, but I'd like to think they chose me, too.


  1. College ball has so many amazing stories…

    Despite the fact I cannot see UK being beaten, I’ll be throwing my support behind Rajon Rondo’s alma mater U of L.

    As an aside, despite the flood of upsets in the early round, as of last week President Obama ranked in the 98th percentile in ESPN’s “Tournament Challenge,” with 460 out of a possible 640 points.

    As another aside, “Go Jayhawks!”

  2. Rajon Rondo grew up in Louisville, but he played college ball at Kentucky. He wanted to go to Louisville but was not offered a scholarship by Rick Pitino. Louisville prefers to regard him as a former star at Eastern High School and a current standout for the Boston Celtics.

  3. Sorry, he did play for Kentucky… got confused with the whole Louisville thing.

    Still, being a Paul Pierce fan, I have to get behind the Jayhawks.

    What odds on another Kentucky self-destruction a-la 2010, when they had something like four future first-round draft picks?

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