Before I was fully admitted into the escape-proof prison of hate that is the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry (ages 0-4, basically), there was Indiana.
My father and my two older brothers were my unassailable sporting guides through the vastly underrated preschool formative fandom years, and their stance on IU was pretty clear: Bob Knight was a mean guy and the Hoosiers wouldn't play Louisville anymore because the Cardinals used to beat them too much.
Incivility (especially with regards to the media) and a lack of respect for U of L was an unholy combination in the Rutherford household of the late '80s. My outlook on the Hoosiers was fixed before I even knew what was happening.
I would never describe my dad as a spiteful sports fan. He enjoys seeing Kentucky lose as much as any of us, but he never watches the Wildcats, or any other rival team for that matter, with the type of malevolence that often defines the Bluegrass Rivalry.
That was not the case with the Bobby Knight Indiana teams of the late '80s and early '90s.
The head of the Rutherford household would, with ill-intentions, seek out Hoosier games on the television. He would watch, he would cheer audibly, and he would become angry if the likelihood of good trumping Knight appeared bleak.
Once, fueled by a kinder core I wish I could claim more of today, I implored my mother to root for the Hoosiers. Sure, the head coach might have been a bad man, but that only made me feel bad for the people under his watch. "Just cheer for the players," I suggested. Even she knew better.
While Indiana basketball has had a minimal impact on my existence as a Louisville fan since those halcyon days, there's still a slight, but uncontrollable, disdain that rises whenever I get a glimpse of Assembly Hall or see those candy striped warm-ups. When it gets instilled deep enough at an early age, it's usually there for good. Time and experience are going to allow you to better rationalize the issue at hand, but your first thought is always going to be related to your original stance. Because of this, for me, the Hoosiers are always going to be the bad guys.
Louisville and Indiana have met on the hardwood nine times in my life, but they've played just four games that I could have any hope of remembering.
On the night of March 25, 1993, I was at Mother of Good Counsel (RIP) attending some type of program which was supposed to be preparing those of us who were about to take our First Communion. The Cards and Hoosiers were tipping off in the Sweet 16 in less time than it was going to take to complete the ordeal.
The man in charge of running the program began with an introduction, which very early on included a joke about basketball and priorities and the big game. The artificial laughter that tends to dominate these types of gatherings expectedly followed. I turned to my father, and I will never forget the undeniable look of a man questioning his ability to suppress his inner fury for two more seconds, let alone two more hours. In the history of mankind, there has never been a person less amused than he was at that moment.
The program ended and we rushed home, where we were greeted with the unsurprising news that the Cards were trailing the top-seeded Hoosiers, and that All-American Calbert Cheaney was in the early stages of going off. IU was shooting an unreal percentage, but Louisville was still very much in the game.
Trailing 47-43 with 10 seconds to play in the first half, U of L had a chance to make it a single possession game at the break. Instead, the Cards lost the ball out-of-bounds, giving IU 1.9 seconds to extend their lead.
In my mind, the shot will always be from halfway between midcourt and the 3-point line. In reality, Damon Bailey came off a screen and buried an uncontested buzzer-beater from just inside the NBA arc. What I'll never forget is the mood in the room absolutely deflating, and the sense of hope that had been so present since we'd gotten home leaving to begin its offseason. The Cards lost by 13.
Any semblance of revenge wouldn't come until almost a decade later when I was a senior in high school.
In just his second season at the helm, Rick Pitino had Louisville fans adequately convinced that not only were the glory years coming back, but that the prodigal period was returning even sooner than anyone had expected. The Cardinals were 16-1 and ranked in the top 10, but in dire need of a significant test after an underwhelming slate of opponents had defined the first half of their conference season.
Indiana, the reigning national runners-up, did the trick. The Hoosiers were ranked in the top 20 and had beaten U of L by 15 the season before. All these factors pushed together resulted in 20,086 fans packing into Freedom Hall, which at the time was the largest crowd ever to see a Louisville home game.
You're likely familiar with the basic game summary. Louisville fell behind big early, CBS cut away to cover the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, the Cards outscored the Hoosiers 60-33 in the second half, ended the game on a 17-0 run, and won by 19 points. It was the first, "oh my God, we might be really, really good...good enough to win it all" moment that I can remember having.
Because CBS had cut away from its coverage, they replayed the game again about an hour after it had ended. Naturally, my dad and I watched it. I went to a party at a friends house later that night, and we heard that they were showing the broadcast one more time after the local news. Instead of trying to talk to girls or meet new friends, we watched the game again. Keystone Light was sipped, and we pulled the "oh no Bracey Wright just hit another three, there's NO WAY we win this game" routine so much that it kept all non-Louisville fans out of the room. It was pretty great.
And then, suddenly, Louisville and Indiana were back to not playing each other again.
If I had to guess, I would think that the majority of folks on both sides would have preferred to see the regional series continue. But it's not like either program was hurting in the rival department, a factor which certainly made it easier to cut ties. While Indiana already had Purdue and UK, Louisville had arch-rival Kentucky and its most-played opponent in Cincinnati. It also had a budding rivalry that no one saw coming, but which burned about as bright as any other during its brief heyday.
Louisville-Marquette never seemed to make much sense. The universities - one a Jesuit school in the Midwest and the other a Southern state school - are separated by 400 miles. They began playing each other in 1951, but both have multiple series with other programs that date back even further. Each program already had an established in-state rival (Kentucky and Wisconsin), as well as a secondary conference rival (Cincinnati and Notre Dame).
The rivalry didn't develop out of necessity, it was simply unavoidable. When two high-profile programs from the same conference play memorable game after memorable game for a prolonged period of time it automatically becomes something much more than it was before, whether the parties involved like it or not.
The man at the center of it all was Tom Crean.
In a conference full of coaches who made you wonder if they looked forward to Louisville games just because they got to shake Rick Pitino's hand when they were over, Crean was the most glaring exception. When Pitino barked at an official, he yelled louder. At a time when Pitino was dominating the same teams year after year, Crean started 7-1 against the future Hall of Famer.
While the incredibly competitive games powered the rivalry, Louisville's disdain for Marquette's fiery frontman certainly did nothing to abate it.
There was an incident in 2004 where Crean claimed his staff had found a Louisville scouting report which included false quotes that had been attributed to him. Pitino insisted he had no knowledge of the fabrication and that the whole thing must have been a joke, but Crean wasn't having it, telling the media later, "doing something like that is so low it's ridiculous."
Perhaps the most infamous incident came a season earlier, when Crean screamed at Cards center Ellis Myles repeatedly for "faking" an injury late in a close game. In reality, Myles had ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee and would miss the rest of the season. The two spoke before the next game at Freedom Hall and had what was described as a "cordial" conversation, but more than 10 years later, Cardinal fans have still been hesitant to forgive.
Crean leaving for Indiana in 2008 had the same effect on the rivalry that Bob Huggins being forced out at Cincinnati a few years earlier had on Louisville's relationship with the Bearcats. The games went on, they were still well-played and important, but it wasn't the same. It wasn't as good.
Now, both Crean and Indiana are re-entering the world of Cardinal antipathy, and there's a sense that this might not be a one-shot deal.
U of L and IU should play every year, there should be no argument that, but there's also little sense in two regional powerhouses playing a neutral court game 800 miles away. Except for this time. Because if you're going to get two of your highest-profile villains back in one night, you may as well do it in Gotham.