A few days ago I got in early from the office. As I lay down across the foot of the bed I turned on the TV & the channel was on ESPNU. The "Roll Tide/War Eagle" documentary was on about the "Iron Bowl" & the ongoing hatred between the Auburn Tigers & the Alabama Crimson Tide. As former players & coaches as well as fans from both sides were interviewed it became very clear: They hated one another! To hear the words by some on the radio & the lengths each side went to to get under the skin of their arch rival was something to say the least. Former players & coaches alike from both sides had a common "bond": they wanted to beat their in-state rival. It was a fuel to their fire. A driving force for their season. The game means something to each side.
Some 6 weeks ago tonight was probably the most heart-wrenching, devastating, sickening loss I've ever felt as a Cardinal fan. Forget Morehead State in '11. Never mind the 34 point loss to Kentucky in Freedom Hall when Rex Chapman dunked & 3 pointed all over us. Even for those who remember the 1975 NCAA Final Four loss to UCLA, I really cannot imagine another loss in Louisville's proud history that ripped my heart out like the Sweet 16 game did. To see us control the game for 37 minutes and fail to close it out left me sleepless that night & bitterly disappointed for many- many days. As you can tell, if you're still reading this, I've really not recovered from it. And short of a tournament championship next year, I don't know if I ever really will.
I know that some of you may be saying things like, "Dude, get over it. There's more to life than this." And you're right! Basketball is a temporal thing & when life's last breath is drawn it won't matter who won when, what, or how many. Eternity is not determined by wins or losses on the field or court. Faith, or the lack thereof, in God's Son, is the only thing that really matters then.
So why am I still wallowing in this? Why am I writing this post at the time when the Louisville football program is having much success in this year's NFL draft? Well the Roll Tide/ War Eagle documentary made me think. It also made me examine our rivalry here in the Commonwealth. I want to share a couple of points of view. Tell me if you think I'm wrong. I'd really like to know.
Auburn-Alabama, Duke-UNC, or Michigan- Michigan State are rivalries in themselves because they're conference rivals. But they're also different in another very significant way: to my knowledge (correct me if I'm wrong), none of them have ever shared a coach! This is not a Pitino bashing post. Just hear me out.
When Pitino went to UK he had no connection or admiration for the 'Ville. His northeastern arrogance seemed to look at us as enemy #1 & he went straight at us. He was merciless to us in his 8 years at UK, going 6- 2 against us including 4 in a row. He often refers to his years there as "Camelot" & he has his own banner hanging in the rafters along with a Final Four in 1993, a Championship in 1996, & a Runner-Up in 1997. While it did anger many Cat fans when he left, he didn't leave like Billy G or Eddie Sutton. There was mutual respect & admiration & most UK fans (while most won't admit it) really appreciate what Coach P did there. In the media he'd talk a little smack & exhort a confidence that let you know they weren't afraid of anyone- especially Louisville. To win 75% of your games against your instate rival & boast 5 Elite Eights, 3 Final Fours, & a Championship in 8 seasons, UK was more than satisfied.
Pitino's departure seemed to be somewhat of a no-fault divorce. UK still loved him, & he still loved them, it was just a separation that at the time was felt to be best for Pitino & UK somewhat understood. He'd just put numerous players in the NBA & now he'd be coaching some of those same guys at the next level.
When Pitino came back to college basketball, back to the Commonwealth, to Louisville, the sheer hatred, anger, & unforgivable disdain for Coach P by UK fans was ignited with steaming passion. He quickly became "the Ex-Husband" you no longer had any feelings for. You didn't want to see him at the store, in a restaurant, or anywhere else. This divorce was no longer cordial, there were now irreconcilable differences.
Even to this day, I really believe Pitino still "loves" Kentucky. Not just the state necessarily, but the University...the program. Even though he's booed at Rupp I still believe he has a real love for UK that will never go away. It's almost like he still loves his ex-spouse a great deal even though he's married to someone else now.
Enter John Calapari. The most arrogant, condescending, media hound I know. Truthfully, he's perfect for the job. Both he & UK have very questionable histories. Cal looks at Pitino as his wife's Ex & he's happy to humiliate him any chance he can. He can't stand Rick & it's even better that he coaches UK's arch rival. Whether it's disrespecting us as a program or fanbase Cal obliges BBN with his cunning smack talk. What's even better for him & them is that he has a commanding 6- 1 against Rick & Louisville. I tell ya...just writing this angers me to no end.
The Louisville-Kentucky rivalry is the best college basketball rivalry in the nation- PERIOD! However it angers me to see that seemingly our coach & fanbase is not as into this rivalry as Lexington is. Rick really doesn't seem to care that 2 of the last 3 seasons have ended at the hands of UK & many of our "fans" think "it's just another game" or "it's only 1 day out of the year". As I watched the Auburn-Alabama documentary I couldn't help but think, "Why don't Louisville fans hate UK like Auburn fans hate Alabama?"
Sitting at a business dinner a few weeks back I was meeting with several folks. Here in the western part of the state there is a huge difference in the ratio of UK fans compared to the 'Ville. One of the lead guys at this dinner began to talk about Louisville. He didn't know or realize that I am a Louisville fan. He began to talk about having a drive & passion for winning like Calapari. He said, "Coach Cal has a questionable past but one thing he has that is not questionable, he has Rick Pitino & Louisville's number...Period." "Rick Pitino might be a HoF Coach but Cal has the "HoF's number...We even beat Louisville with our Willie out!" The laughter at the table was deafening. Do you see why there's still a lingering sting of the Sweet 16?
I am ready to move on, but the best way to move on is to beat the team that you despise the most. Bobby Petrino hates UK & I think it did & will filter down to our players all the more on the gridiron. I want that in basketball! A coaching staff (not a different coaching staff, but a different attitude about UK) that has the same or more disdain for UK as they do for us. I want our players & fanbase to care about this rivalry more instead of thinking it's just another game or going to their locker room afterwards to congratulate them for ending our season. As much as anything it's things like this that just make the loss 6 weeks ago more intolerable. I want to win 6 of 7. Heck, I'd settle for beating them 3 times in a row- something we've never done! The point I'm making is this. For a rivalry to be a rivalry there has to be competitive balance. We've been lacking in that area for some reason for the past few years. I want the Pitino that went 6-2 against us to go 6-2 against UK. Is that too much to ask?