When I was growing up, the annual game against Cincinnati in Freedom Hall was a mini-holiday. The Bearcats were always nationally ranked, the game was always on ESPN in the middle of the week, and the tip was always slated for 9 p.m., which resulted in the ever-so-rare grade school late night (Letterman is on. I'm awake. It's a school night. This is awesome.).
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a few of these games, and there are two things I remember vividly about them. The first is the thought that even though I'm sitting about 25 rows deep, Kenyon Martin is going to find a way to murder me. To this day I have not been in the presence of a more intimidating human being.
The second memory that stands out is missing long stretches of action because of a continued inability to take my eyes off of Bob Huggins.
I knew that my focus should be elsewhere - there's a fantastic game going on and lord knows Martin could be making his move into the stands at any moment - but what was happening on the visiting bench was just too enthralling. This guy is berating officials, he's berating his players, he's kicking the scorer's table, he's shouting things back at taunting fans. Simply put, it was the best theatre this city has seen in years (Sorry Actor's, Dustin Hoffman is not walking through that door).
The relationship was simple: Huggins would go crazy for some reason, we would boo, he would react in some way, and we would all leave wanting to punch him in the face. It was a hot rivalry, and the gruff man in the black pullover or sweater vest was one of the main reasons.
Then, out of nowhere, it was over.
Bobby got drunk and yakked in his car, UC got a new president eager to clean up the athletic program's image, and Hugs was off to K-State.
At first we celebrated because the villain in our conflict story had been slain, but we quickly yearned for the past when it became apparent how boring drama is without an antagonist. I think we all felt like Dwight from The Office when he was forced to resign from Dunder-Mifflin and gave Jim a bear hug before driving away for what he believed would be the final time.
We needed a hug, and we needed Hugs.
The rivalry immediately went into a death spiral and has been virtually nonexistent since. Part of that is because Cincinnati hasn't been very good, but anyone who thinks that U of L/UC as we knew it didn't die when Hugs left is kidding themselves. Andy Kennedy and Mick Cronin are both fine coaches, but both lack an inherent inability to graduate a single player, as well as a propensity for recruiting young men who will eventually punch horses or torture their roommate with a clothes hanger.
But the college basketball world works in a beautiful way that no mere mortal can understand.
Louisville was all set to move into the Big East without Huggins, and even found a replacement rival before the conference shift was complete. When the Cards earned a trip to the Final Four by beating West Virginia in overtime, it laid the foundation for a rivalry that would grow more rapidly than any other in college sports. In four years the two have played epic games in the regular season, the Big East Tournament, and the NCAA Tournament. On top of that, they've also become fierce rivals on the gridiron.
There was only one problem with all of this: the basketball coach, John Beilein, he was just too nice. Like Tubby Smith, he was a guy you wanted to hit the road for the lone reason that you didn't dislike him enough. Rivalries are supposed to be about conflict, post-victory gloating, and unadulterated Schadenfreude, but it's hard to root for a team to lose if you know you're going to feel sorry for the head coach afterward.
Thankfully Tommy Amaker underachieved at Michigan for the 27th time too many, and our little unhateable (word) problem was whisked away to Ann Arbor. Naturally, the only logical choice to replace Beilein was Huggins, one of three people on Earth with the ability to instantly ratchet up an already flourishing rivalry.
And now the prodigal rogue returns to the Hall for a second time.
A year ago, part of me felt like clapping when the man was introduced, while another held the strong urge to throw anything substantial I felt I might be able to heave with some degree of accuracy.
During the game - a game for which my seat was a mere row over from one Stephen Kragthorpe - I was overcome by a bevy of mixed emotions. Was this the way hating Huggins used to feel? Have I changed too much? Am I even capable of Huggy-scorn anymore?
It was like an awkward encounter with an ex-girlfirend you haven't seen in five years.
But now, more than 12 months removed from a reunion neither one of us were really sure how to approach, I think it's time to revive the simple, straightforward abhorrence of yesteryear.
Hi Bob: I don't like you, you don't like me, why don't you try graduating someone or keeping your underage players from getting in drunken fights at Pirates games.
It feels good. Welcome back to the Hall, Hugs.