Louisville-Kentucky: Inside A Heated College Hoops Rivalry

Why this Final Four match-up is stirring passions across the state

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Left: Bill Haber/ AP, Ray Stubblebine / Reuters

Left; Kentucky head coach John Calipari reacts during the championship game of the Southeastern Conference tournament in New Orleans, Sunday, March 11, 2012. Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino cheers his team on during the second half of their NCAA men's championship basketball game at the 2012 Big East Tournament in New York, March 8, 2012.

Come Monday, a team from Kentucky is going to play for the national college hoops title. In the minds of its 4.4-million residents, that’s just more proof that God himself smokes tobacco, drinks bourbon and plays basketball.

But the anticipation in the Bluegrass State this week has much less to do with the Monday’s title shot than with the Louisville-Kentucky game in Saturday’s Final Four in New Orleans.

Sure, titles matter to Kentucky, which has won three since 1978 and hopes to bring its all-time count to eight if it can get past the surging but still underdog Cardinals. But in the Bluegrass, where basketball is still very much king, nothing matters more than beating Louisville, a team that has won two titles of its own and been to the Final Four nine times. In the minds of most Kentuckians outside of its largest city, however, Louisville will never be anything other than an upstart.

“There will be people at Kentucky that will have a nervous breakdown if they lose to us,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after his team beat Florida last weekend to earn an unexpected place in this year’s Final Four. “You’ve gotta watch – they’ve got to put the fences up on bridges. There will be people consumed by Louisville.”

Pitino knows the game is no less important to his own fans, diehards who have made Louisville the most profitable basketball program in the country. Throughout Kentucky, wedding plans were changed, rock concerts were canceled and police plans for scores of additional patrols were announced. In tiny Georgetown, Ky., situated between the two schools along Interstate 64, two elderly fans waiting for dialysis treatment came to blows over pre-game trash-talk. No matter that one of the men was still hooked up to the dialysis machine.

But in focusing on Kentucky’s intense attachment to its Wildcats, Pitino put his finger on just what makes the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry so heated. It helps explain why its fans so genuinely dislike each other’s team, and often enough each other. Those red-hot emotions have been baked, beaten and hard-wired into the DNA of what it means to be a Kentuckian for generations, long before the two teams actually began playing regularly in 1983.

Kentucky began building its relationship with fans in every corner of the state in 1930, when a son of a Kansas farmer by the name of Adolph Rupp first brought his trademark brown suit, deep scowl, and incredible perfectionism to the Big Blue bench. It’s the Baron’s legacy that hangs over the rivalry some 82 years later, long after his 41 seasons as Kentucky’s iron-willed basketball autocrat ended. His success – four NCAA titles and nearly 900 wins, mostly with players from Kentucky — came during an era of bad roads, intense poverty and, for many in the state, deep isolation. The winning tradition in Lexington was the single most unifying force in the state, and news of wins and losses were experienced like wartime reports from loved ones at the front.

Billy Reed, who wrote for Sports Illustrated for nearly 30 years and was sports editor of The Courier-Journal, said that kind of devotion hasn’t left UK fans. “If Kentucky doesn’t win, there is no telling what some of these people are going to do,” he said this week. “Out in the state they would go into mourning. And that is not an exaggeration.  I remember in 1955 when Kentucky’s home court win-streak of 129 straight games was snapped by Georgia Tech. The flag over the state Capitol was lowered to half mast.”

That intense fan loyalty to Kentucky has everything to do with the glorious but often bitter rivalry on display this week. During Rupp’s final season, a new face showed up in Louisville with basketball credentials almost as royal as those of Rupp himself. Denny Crum, after nearly a decade as the top assistant to John Wooden at UCLA, had arrived in Louisville to take over a program that had been quietly raising its flag in the Commonwealth for years.

The Cardinals had amassed the longest streak of winning seasons in the country, a record that still stands. But in a sign of Kentucky’s contempt for Louisville, neither Rupp nor his successor, Joe B. Hall, would acknowledge it. They preferred to count instead Kentucky’s longer record at the time of non-losing seasons, using several .500 years to inch past Louisville’s accomplishment.

This week, Crum told TIME that Kentucky offered neither him, nor his team, instant respect. “It was a little different for me, coming from UCLA,” says Crum, who is himself celebrating 41 years of association with the University of Louisville, where he remains head coach emeritus. “Everyone cheered for UCLA. But Kentucky was by far the most popular program in the state. They had a clear channel radio station broadcasting every one of their games and even The Courier-Journal, which was a statewide paper at the time, wouldn’t carry our games at first in its state edition, other than maybe a box score. Out in the state, Louisville wasn’t liked or well-respected much at all.”

Crum brought Louisville success immediately. In his first season, Rupp’s last, he took the Cardinals to the Final Four, where he lost to his mentor. By the time he won the 1980 championship, once more against UCLA, he had been to the Final Four three times in nine years, to just two appearances by Kentucky.

Still, Kentucky would not schedule Louisville. “They refused to play us. … Rupp had always said it would be counterproductive to their recruiting efforts in Kentucky to play another school in the state,” says Crum. “And they felt like if they played Louisville, then they’d have to play Western and Eastern and Murray State and all the other schools in the state.”

Reed said there was another, more ingrained reason why Kentucky would not play Louisville, despite the obvious parity Louisville was achieving by 1980. “Adolph Rupp developed a superiority complex that exists to this day,” Reed said. “Kentucky fans are just very resentful of anybody that would challenge what they consider their birthright of superiority.”

The morning after Louisville won its championship in 1980, the headline in The New York Times read: “They are No. 1 in the Nation, but No. 2 in Their Home State.” Columnist Dave Anderson wrote, “Perhaps now Kentucky will deign to schedule Louisville in basketball, but in its arrogance it never has before,” arguing that “part of the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry has racial overtones. “To some people in both Louisville and the rest of the state, the predominantly black Cardinals are better known as ‘black birds.’”

Reed said he still thinks race is a factor in keeping the tensions so high between Kentucky and Louisville fans, even though both programs have fully embraced black athletes on their teams. Crum and others disagree. But they all agree that when Reed, on the morning of the 1980 game, wrote in the Courier-Journal that the time had finally come for Kentucky to treat Louisville like an equal and schedule a game, the reaction across the state was negative. “It’s amazing to me that (Joe B.) Hall and Crum are now such good buddies,” Reed told TIME this week. “They hated each other pretty much. … But when he won the 1980 title, that to me was when I had to say enough is enough. Louisville has more than proven that it is Kentucky’s equal. It was just this false feeling of superiority at Kentucky.”

Reed said Hall stopped talking to him after the column, and fans booed him at Lexington. Crum began speaking out about Kentucky’s refusal to play his team. Murmurs in the national media that more than just arrogance and turf-protection was keeping the Cardinals off the schedule became a drumbeat. And Crum kept winning.

In 1983, the teams finally met, in a NCAA Elite Eight game in Knoxville. Louisville won in overtime, and after that even the governor began demanding a game.

That governor was John Y. Brown Jr., a Kentucky graduate who had been born in Lexington the son of a legendary lawmaker and namesake. But he had made his fortune in Louisville, where he bought he bought Col. Harlan Sander’s Kentucky Fried Chicken and turned it into a global fast-food behemoth. Brown told TIME this week that after the 1983 game he was determined that the two schools would meet. “Fortunately, I had Bill Sturgill in my cabinet at the time and he was chairman of the (UK) trustees. I called him in and told him I wanted to keep that promise. He said okay, and that’s what we did – over the strong objections of Joe B. Hall and the president of the university at the time. It was probably the most political decision I made as governor, but I just felt like it was something we ought to do for the fans,” he recalled.

Reed said the university president, Otis Singletary, had by then tired of the constant scrutiny in the press and whispers about a legacy of racism that dogged discussion of his school’s refusal to play Louisville, which had integrated its team about a decade before Kentucky did during Rupp’s final years. “Dr. Singletary had finally had enough of it,” he said. But as with all things in basketball, especially in Kentucky, in the end it came down to wins and losses. “When Louisville won that game in Knoxville, well that had a lot to do with it, too,” Reed said. “Had Kentucky won in 1983, I am not sure they would have ever played Louisville.”

As the teams meet this year, it will feel in many ways once again like a contest between David and Goliath. Pitino’s Cardinals have shocked everyone, even their coach, by getting as far as they have. Crum said he’ll be pulling for his team against Kentucky as hard as ever, but wasn’t making any bets. “I don’t know if we can beat Kentucky,” he says, noting that Kentucky won the first matchup in December and has only gotten more dominant in the months since. “Kentucky may win by 20. But I do know that tournament play is different than regular season play. Emotions are different, and things happen that might surprise you.”

Brown, for his part, won’t be cheering for both teams like he did as governor in 1983, when he famously wore a sports jacket stitched together from a red and a blue coat by his then-wife, former Miss America Phyllis George. He’ll be cheering for Kentucky from the stands, just like he has for six decades. “I haven’t missed a game, either in person on the radio or on television, since 1945,” Brown said from his home in Lexington.

He credits Louisville for having a great program, and called Pitino a great coach. But he said it’s the success or failure of the Kentucky team that means the most to the state as a whole. The Bluegrass State hasn’t been the same in the three years since John Calipari arrived to resuscitate the struggling Wildcat program, he added. “I haven’t ever seen the kind of excitement in Kentucky for a team like the feeling in this state that John Calipari has brought,” Brown said. “It’s astonishing. He ought to run for governor, and I mean it. He fits right in here, is comfortable at center stage, and has done more for the self-esteem of people in Kentucky than any governor ever has.”

Of course, by the time Saturday’s game tips off, thousands of fans in Louisville will have painted their faces red in hopes of making Kentucky feel a little blue.