Reading Remote Cardinal’s story brought back a lot of memories for me, because my path to Cardinal fandom is eerily similar to his. There are some distinct differences, however, so I figured I’d share my experiences with “The Rivalry” as well. Plus, everybody seems to be doing it.
Like RC, I grew up in a UK household as a UK fan. In my family, unlike his, it was my mother who was the UK fanatic, while my dad was merely along for the ride. He grew up all over the world, as his father was in the military, and only moved to Louisville in high school. My mother, on the other hand, grew up in south-central Kentucky, otherwise known as “true blue” country. Her parents were Cats fans. Her brother and sister went to UK. She ended up going to a vocational school in Louisville, but never bled anything but blue. I was exposed from day 1, wearing various UK paraphernalia even as an infant.
As I grew up, Kentucky basketball was king in my household. We had the commemorative Maker’s Mark bottles and the UK-emblazoned Coca-Cola cans. I had UK jerseys and sweaters. I had a framed print of the 92 Wildcats hanging in my room through high school. I had Jamal Mashburn’s rookie card with the Mavericks (which I actually still have). I even had an autographed Jeff Brassow card from his 93-94 senior campaign. But, for me, sports were always kind of an afterthought, even though I played most of them as a kid. We never had the money to go to games, and I usually found myself playing with Legos while a game was on TV in the background.
One thing I knew for sure, though, was that we hated Louisville.
My household was not quite as tolerant as Remote Cardinal’s. Growing up in rural Kentucky, I heard a lot of racism. More than my fair share. And a lot of it, sadly, came from within my family. I grew up hearing all sorts of remarks about the kind of players that Louisville recruited, the kinds of guys that they played, and the kind of people that lived in the city (even though my parents both lived there when I was born). I think that’s when I really started to separate from their ideals. I never really bought into that kind of thing. But, it ended up having an interesting side effect.
I was in fifth grade in 1997 when Pitino left for the NBA and Tubby Smith took over at Kentucky. Many members of my family had an immediate reaction to Smith’s hiring, very similar to that of many fans, that is well known, but rarely discussed: how can UK have a n***** for a coach? Of course, nothing would stop them from praising Big Blue, but I saw first hand how a large part of that fanbase never truly accepted Tubby Smith, even after he won a championship. Still, it was UK all the way, they just needed a new coach. Preferably, they wanted Pitino to come back once he inevitably failed in Boston (the writing was on the wall within a year).
Of course, then Pitino came back to the state of Kentucky. I was just starting high school when that happened. Almost immediately I started hearing things that I never thought I’d hear: “Maybe we should start rooting for Louisville.” Of course, that never actually happened, but it’s safe to say that a large part of the fanbase that had become disgruntled with Tubby Smith (or never really gave him a chance in the first place) became a lot more receptive of Louisville basketball. It may not be discussed often these days, but from my experience, for all those UK fans that were ready to crucify Pitino when he accepted the Louisville job, there was probably another one (maybe a half) that was actually excited to see him in the state again coaching college basketball. They may have been secretly hoping that it would force Kentucky to hire someone better, but there’s no doubt that it changed things forever.
I had a very successful high school career. I graduated 3rd in my class, did extremely well on my ACT, and was a 2004 Governor’s Scholar. I could basically go to any in-state school I wanted free of charge. Western Kentucky, in particular, recruited me hard, inviting myself and 9 other students from around the country to come to campus and be offered their premier scholarship at halftime of a basketball game in Diddle arena. I decided, however, that I wanted to major in engineering, which WKU does not offer. I got scholarships to some prestigious out of state schools, including Kettering and Missouri-Rolla (no MIT for me), but they were partial. Louisville offered me a full scholarship with plenty of money to live. UK just gave me a scholarship with no stipend, to my disappointment. I therefore decided, a bit begrudgingly, to attend Louisville, rather than my lifelong dream of being a UK grad. Again, my parents made very little money, and anything I could do to make things easier for them was what I had to do.
Shortly after taking my visit to Louisville and signing up for classes, I received the rest of my scholarship offer from Kentucky. I would be receiving even more money than from Louisville. But they had waited far too long. I was insulted. Did they just expect me to wait around on them forever? That was a bit arrogant, I thought. So I decided to stick with Louisville.
I entered college in 2005. If you’ll remember, that was a very good year for Louisville athletics. Shortly after I made my college decision, Louisville was in the Final Four. But I was still only a casual sports fan at that time. It wasn’t until I started college and became friends with a member of the Louisville band that I really came to enjoy Louisville sports, particularly football. And that’s when my first very personal experience with The Rivalry happened.
We played football in Lexington in 2005, and my best friend of course made the trip to Commonwealth stadium with the band. He was also a freshman, and it was his first experience in Commonwealth. When he got back from the game, he was extremely upset. That’s when he told me about everything that had happened in Lexington. How they had been booed entering the stadium. How the UK fans threw food at them. How they poured their drinks on the band as they entered the field and cursed at them. These weren’t even players. How could somebody act like that to members of the band? What’s worse, there were several UK fans attending UofL, and they were insufferable all week long. Not to mention incredibly sore losers afterwards. Even members of my family (not my parents) started making derogatory comments about the Cardinals, the team which helped fund my college. It was at that point my stance in this rivalry changed forever, and I haven’t looked back.
I’ve seen both sides of this rivalry on a very personal level. What’s more, I’ve seen and experienced firsthand the philosophical differences between the majority of each fanbase. I drew my own line in the sand just over five years ago, and really haven’t looked back. One thing I find encouraging, however, is how things have started to change. My hometown, once a hotbed for all things Blue and a no-fly zone for all things Red, is becoming more red-riddled all the time. My dad easily converted, and now proudly displays his Cardinal license plate and bumper sticker. You can buy Louisville merchandise in stores all across the town. Where there used to be only Wildcat flags, there are now Cardinal flags. More importantly, however, I’ve seen firsthand the evolution of people in this state to becoming more accepting and more tolerant. Unfortunately, we still have a way to go, and the side effect seems to be that the old-school stalwarts of each camp have become even more heated as the two sides have mingled and wrestled national success over the years. Who knows how things go from here, but there’s certainly a change brewing. One thing of which I’m certain: I’m proud to finally be a Cardinal.