Rivalry games have a certain air about them. They heighten the senses, rile up personalities and turn the most docile of people into fuming partisans. But why do we choose the teams we root for? Part of that decision is based on geographic location while others credit a program’s tradition. When it comes to the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry, a civil war of sorts take over the Commonwealth and pits sibling versus sibling. However, no violence is produced in this matchup besides a little redbird or big blue blood here and there.
When the University of Louisville Cardinals host the University of Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville, emotions will be high and tempers will flare. There’s a certain meaning to this rivalry that cannot be properly explained. You see, this simple basketball game holds an unspeakable significance to Kentuckians across the Commonwealth. Even if you did not attend either university, you mostly likely will have an iron in this fire.
In a state where tobacco and coal are kings, basketball represents our competitive consciousness. Every year at about this time, the special rivalry takes center stage on the national scene and Kentuckians take massive pride in the event. With no tier-1 professional teams in Kentucky, as of yet anyway, this game is a chance to showcase the state’s pride and place among national athletic excellence.
Kentucky’s basketball history is arguably most impressive, with its eight national titles in the modern NCAA era and its long-time dominance in the Southeastern Conference. There’s a reason behind the huge fan gatherings at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for the SEC tournament and the city subsequently becoming ‘Catlanta’ each year.
The intensity among the Wildcat fan base is electric. A casual conversation with a fan or a viewing of a game inside Rupp Arena undoubtedly displays the pride they feel for their team. Coach John Calipari is picking up where previous giants left off and is pushing the Wildcats to win more championships.
Growing up in central Kentucky, I quickly learned that Louisville fans were definitely in the minority when this game came around each year. With a program like Kentucky steeped in so much history, some locals simply do not understand why one would root for any other team.
Contrary to Wildcat understanding, Louisville fans have their reasons for not ‘bleeding blue’ for the land-grant institution in Lexington. Louisville is the state’s flagship city, the economic and diversity hub of the Commonwealth. Cardinal Basketball has a storied history as well, despite having to earn its accolades mostly on its own without the help of huge sums of land-grant monies over decades.
Louisville basketball boasts multiple national titles in the modern NCAA era and Final Fours you can count on both hands. The University of Louisville’s athletic facilities are among the best in the nation. You can’t build that kind of reputation without a dedicated fan base and continued success.
One statistic lost on many observers is the fact that Louisville has had only two head coaches over the past forty years. Everything the Cardinals have earned, they have earned under the guidance of two hall of fame coaches. This fact alone places the Cardinals’ success in context and illustrates the school’s tradition. Not many national programs can say the same thing.
Denny Crum was the face of the program for thirty years, propelling his team to six Final Fours and earning two national titles in that span. Rick Pitino is the new face, and also a familiar face in the Commonwealth as he was the Wildcat coach in the nineties.
Arguably the most well-known name in the state besides Crum, Joe B. Hall, Muhammad Ali or perhaps Colonel Sanders, Pitino transitioned the Cardinals into the coveted Big East and will preside over their entrance into the prestigious ACC. Tack on another two Final Fours and several conference championships and Pitino is now a legend at UofL and is afforded the same affection Crum holds.
There are few other games that rise to this level of intensity between fan bases. Most notable among other high-profile matchups are the annual Duke-North Carolina basketball game and the Michigan-Ohio State football conflict. However, as the largest and nationally known institutions in Kentucky, the UL-UK game is the cream of the crop. Nearly everyone has a vested interest in the outcome, and everyone must live with that outcome for the next year.
Win or lose, the two fan bases will continue the course. A victory is only a one-year proposition, and a loss is only felt for the same period. Each team will have another chance to take on their rival, and as the Commonwealth’s pro teams in disguise, the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals will forever reside in the competitive consciousness that exists when they play as demigods every year in Lexington and Louisville.
May the best team win. Long live the rivalry!