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For Louisville basketball fans, the healing process can finally begin

U of L received its IARP ruling on Thursday, but the effects of the wait have gripped the program for five years.

Notre Dame v Louisville Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

On Wednesday, when news that the IARP’s ruling on Louisville would finally be coming down within 24 hours, Cardinal fans began to play a game: Name all of the major life changes you’ve experienced since this whole thing began in September of 2017.

I didn’t say it was a fun game.

For me personally, my daughter was negative two years old on the morning I first learned about “University Six.” She’s now three, and our son just turned one. I was also just under a month away from hosting the first episode of my new radio show ... on 790. That show ran for two and-a-half years. After some pandemic-fueled time on the sidelines, I’ve been doing “The Mike Rutherford Show” for over 15 months now on The Big X.

It’s safe to assume the stories of nearly everyone reading this are similar.

Perhaps the entity that has remained the most unchanged during this period of nearly two thousand days has been the Louisville men’s basketball program itself. Sure, there have been new coaches and players and scandals and fears, and that’s kind of the point: The state of turmoil has been a constant throughout this “process.”

This is where I make the point that you’ve already seen or heard a thousand times or are about to see or hear a thousand times: Louisville did not “skate,” Louisville did not receive a “slap on the wrist,” Louisville did not “get off easy.”

Louisville was decimated. Louisville remains, for the time being, decimated.

Since the day the FBI’s William Sweeney famously (and in hindsight, hilariously) declared that “we have your playbook,” Louisville has been to a grand total of one NCAA tournament and won a grand total of zero NCAA tournament games. The Cardinals are not projected to break either one of these trends in the season that now lies immediately in front of us.

Additionally, U of L instantly (hastily?) fired the most successful athletic director in the history of the program and one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball. Louisville basketball has not really felt like Louisville basketball at any point since.

We’re talking about a top six all-time program that between 2003 and 2015 missed a single NCAA tournament, was a top four seed nine times, went to six Elite Eights, three Final Fours and won one national championship.

Once U of L is done serving out the punishments that were handed out today, it will have been a full decade since we were forced to learn who Katina Powell was. That decade won’t remotely resemble the one that preceded it ... or any of the ones that preceded it since the early part of the last century.

A period of futility this long is tough to endure at any age, but the group I’ve felt the worst for during this whole thing has been those fans in their formative years.

Think about that period of time when you first really fell in love with Cardinal basketball. I may have missed the glory years of the ‘80s, but I still had the supremely talented ‘93-’94 squad, the second round upset of Villanova in ‘96, and the thrilling run to the Elite Eight in ‘97. It didn’t matter that we didn’t win a game in the Big Dance from the time when I was in 7th grade through my junior year of high school, I was hooked.

A current senior in high school was in 5th grade when the Katina Powell scandal first broke. You live a hundred different lives and are a hundred different people in those years between age 11 and age 18. In nearly all those iterations of themselves, these young Cardinal fans have been attempting to fall in love with a program that has been a shell of its former self.

When all is said and done, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Louisville will have lost out on a generation of Cardinal basketball fans. At the very least, they will have a generation of Cardinal basketball fans whose journey began by being dealt the most unfair hand possible.

It’s been easy to forget in recent years that this is supposed to be about basketball, about on-court victories and defeats for an institution most of us have cared far too much about for as long as we can remember. The extreme lows used to be tolerable because they were part of the game and they made the extreme highs possible. Too often, the extreme lows since 2015 haven’t been part of the game — at least the game as we know it — and that’s made the ride more tedious than it ever should be.

This thing is so special to so many of us. It should never feel like a chore or something we follow merely out of habit. This is supposed to be fun — the best kind of fun — and it hasn’t felt that way in far too long.

The healing process for all of these wounds still has a timeline that is impossible to see clearly at this point. At least we finally have the green light for that process to begin.

It’s time for this to be fun again.