From Louisville to Lexington: Football blooms in the heart of basketball

Photos by Jason Kirk, SB Nation

Saturday, 84,000 Kentuckians went to watch fake football, and another 37,000 went to get drunk near horses. Only the first part of that sentence is unusual.

The first thing I did in Kentucky, before driving from the Louisville spring game to a horse track to Kentucky's spring game: brunch bourbon.

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The most Kentucky brunch, short of something involving a hot brown.

The spirit is everywhere and alive in Kentucky. It's hard to use the interstate without passing a distillery sign. Bourbon sponsors horse racing. There's roadside bourbon candy. The slogan of the spot I meet Jon at is "Whiskey by the Drink," because it has a wall of bourbon and is by the Ohio River.

America's Congressionally-recognized "distinctive" liquor is among the birthrights claimed by both Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals fans. The two sides don't appear in the same places Saturday, at all, with a lone Alabama fan diluting the crowd of bright red in Louisville and Mark serving as the sole Cards fan later in Lexington, as far as I'm aware. This is strange to me, since in my part of the world a rival's event is cause for either overt spying or heckling or both, but Kentuckians are factional people.

The only interactions I witness: Kentucky fans booing a PA announcement that Wildcats baseball plays Louisville next (but cheering the news that new football coach Mark Stoops is throwing the first pitch) and Kentucky's track team competing at Louisville.

While UK fans can claim the higher spring game attendance number this year, they can't claim to have drank multiple stadium concessions counters dry of beer. UK's stadium doesn't sell beer, but Louisville's does, making it one of the very first and still few college stadiums to do so. And Saturday was dollar beer day.

I'd expected to find a drunken melee or two, but the funny thing about dollar beer is it inspires such long lines that nobody actually gets drunk. I happily paid $2 more for beer elsewhere in the stadium just to avoid standing around for the dollar kind. If all beer in the world were 10 cents, everyone would spend so much time waiting in line for it that nobody would ever be drunk enough to act up. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich is a genius.

Those concessions counters, by the way, are Papa John'ses. There's one every 30 feet or so within Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. There's a Papa John's two blocks from Papa John's Cardinal Stadium (its marquee: "GO CARDS") and 12 other Papa John'ses within 10 miles of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Pizza in the basketball program's nearby KFC Yum! Center is Papa John's, despite Yum! owning Pizza Hut. Tom Jurich is double-selling basketball pizza, because Tom Jurich is a genius.

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The most Kentucky lunch: college stadium beer and a springy disc of rubbery carbs.

Company founder and mascot John Schnatter isn't exactly Louisville's most beloved son, especially not when considered alongside Muhammad Ali or Hunter S. Thompson or, these days, Charlie Strong. But he is its most acknowledged. Everyone has a story, whether it's accusing him of hitting on women in a decades-wide age range or corporate lunches functioning as laboratories for his test recipes or seventh-graders eating the same vintage of his pizza for three-straight days' worth of school lunches.

He bought the stadium and put his name on it, complete with paternalistic prefix. I keep hoping to spot him on dollar beer day.

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Louisville men's and women's basketball players, shilling their Twitter handles to a football crowd. Everyone loves it.

The spring game happens, with 33,000 announced in attendance as Teddy Bridgewater treats second-string defenders like Duck Hunt. The biggest cheer by far is for the national champion men's basketball team, which cuts up on a mic in the end zone at halftime. Walking into the stadium, I'd listened as three Louisville fans compared their upcoming basketball recruiting class to John Calipari's, which will likely rank as the greatest ever, on paper.

Based on my short time in Louisville, I'm left with the impression that there's never any traffic and that all travels are done by wishing upon a Papa John's, making genie Schnatter emerge bloat-facedly in a Camaro to build you a sweaty warp zone to your destination. It will ooze you where you need to go, but it will also give you dense farts.

Kentuckians talk about Louisville as if it's a metropolis, but it's smaller than El Paso and feels very snug. Atop the hilariously tall Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, you can see Churchill Downs (home of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands), the airport, and just about everything else.

Everything else is either already painted Cardinal red or is a Papa John's or is about to be torn down and replaced with something bought for the university by fast food. Or by bourbon.

The 15-year-old football stadium named after pizza expanded three years ago and is soon to grow again, with Maker's Mark contributing to an $8 million academic center for the stadium's southern end. The basketball arena named after chicken is three years old (the old gym now hosts lacrosse, horse shows, and livestock auctions). The eight-year-old baseball stadium is still inedible but did just expand, and several other facilities are less than a decade old.

A row of doomed silos just off I-65 feature a mural proclaiming Louisville "the best college sports town in America." The 10 concrete tubes formerly stored pet food, producing rafts of odor throughout campus known as dog fog. Dog fog has since been relegated to what happens to one after eating Papa John's.

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By Flickr user MattHurst.

Everything that can be sponsored is being sponsored, and everything that can be expanded is being expanded. Everything is new and getting newer. If Louisville wins the American Athletic Conference this year and adds an ACC title in the following years, PJCS will have banners celebrating conference titles in five different leagues since the school went public in 1970, from the MVC to the BCS.

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Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes crowd at the gorgeous, thousand-acre Keeneland compound is what would happen if buses and buses of Ole Miss fans tailgated at Augusta National for a wedding at which one fraternity married another fraternity in a bow tie blizzard; the wedding's reception would itself be a tailgate for yet another tailgate. In a T-shirt and cargo shorts, I'm as underdressed as the protagonists in your dreams about accidentally going to high school naked with their teeth falling out.

"Is the track this way?" I ask a woman in an expensive blue hat my mind identifies as an Easter hat and a man in an expensive gray suit, part of a crowd I'm following. They smile. I ask again. After asking again, I ask again.

"Oh, I thought you were joking," the woman says. I sense everyone at Keeneland must have inherited generational knowledge about how things work at Keeneland, but this is because I'm feeling more defiantly middle-class by the second. For no good reason.

"It's ... way, way down that way," the man chuckles, indicating the track is on the dark side of Mars. It turns out to be a five-minute walk away.

I'm told I'm nowhere near drunk enough, and spending about an hour at a horse track while sober of course makes no sense, but Keeneland beer costs much more than Louisville beer did. If not for the lines, I could've gotten drunk for $25 less at Louisville than I could've at Keeneland. I missed Louisville. I felt certain Rick Pitino and Colonel Sanders are the only Louisvillians to have ever worn suits. I wanted to run back to Louisville, then pizza warp to Keeneland with the gentleman I saw outside a Papa John's in a Mountain Dew NASCAR jacket, both of us poofing into the middle of a tan-in-a-canned Lexington CEO huddle via a cloud of dog fog. Mountain Dew man made so much more sense to me than anything at Keeneland did.

There's definitely major league drinking at Keeneland, though. The cigarettes, cigars, and pipes spectrum, too. Right when I arrive I see a drunk man being held back by his boys in a crowd; he's threatening a drunk woman who's calling him racist names despite everyone involved being white. I've seen some hood shit, but I don't think I've ever seen a man threaten to brawl with a woman before, and definitely not a man throwing an expensive sport coat onto thick, green grass in the process.

I don't realize it until a day later, but I witnessed Java's War pull off one of the most amazing athletic feats I've ever been present for, surging from worst to first to clinch a spot in the Kentucky Derby. I bet on My Name Is Michael, because that is his name. He did not show, because his name is not I Will Show. Somewhere in there I saw about four seconds of meaningful, competitive sports all day, despite spending 12 hours among 121,000 Kentuckians in the name of sports.

We evaluate cities based on the cities we already know the best, right?

Louisville reminds me of Atlanta, despite its lack of panhandlers. The Southern Baptist Convention's oldest seminary is in Louisville, having moved from South Carolina due to the Civil War. Louisville made Ali, which includes having made Ali angry. It's a diverse city in a less-so state, with a third of Kentucky's minority population. It's chipper and colorful, whether painted by corporate sponsors, the Cardinals, city-commissioned muralists, or self-commissioned graffiti taggers. It's like nothing else in its region.

Driving from Georgia through central Tennessee and Kentucky means going a very long time without any rap on the FM dial, with the options mostly limited to Nashville country, modern pop country, American Jesus country, and lil-cuties-in-cutoffs-sippin'-citrus-drinks-at-the-houseboat country serving as the only options (these are all the same thing). This changes within 30 miles of Louisville, where Juicy J and 2 Chainz show up. Lexington's rap station advertises concerts happening in Louisville.

Louisville's spring game has its own DJ, who plays almost nothing but Southern rap over a creaking PA cranked way too loud for its own good.

Cardinals fans in Teddy Heisman shirts show up a little bit late and leave a little bit early, and I'm told this isn't just a spring thing. This all makes sense to me. The crowd on Saturday was better than photos suggested, with an off-camera, Turner Field-esque horde sunning itself on the terrace. The Ted is a good allegory for PJCS, since I don't know which one is the most sponsor-friendly park I've ever been in.

But Jon says Louisville is Atlanta blended with Chicago, the North's southernmost city and vice versa. It doesn't feel like a Southern college town, but more like a pro sports city whose NFL and NBA teams currently play in the Big East. Lexington is southern because the SEC is southern, while Louisville's rise came in Conference USA, a morphing body that cannot be triangulated. I see more industrial trains in Louisville in one day than I've seen in a year elsewhere, though like everything else in town they eventually take a load off and root for the home team:

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Lexington feels like a place of the SEC college town genre, but with an openly gay mayor. Bridges and columns aren't painted blue, as Louisville's are red, because here bridges are things that ferry people toward sports, not things to read.

UK fans tailgate all around the stadium and onto church parking lots. They divert traffic as they see fit, less reliant than Louisville fans on lines and conventions and more on what makes battlefield sense. I watch six cars on a bumper-to-bumper Alumni Drive suddenly press into and claim an oncoming lane until Lexington police motorcycles claim it back, like a Risk territory that alternately sustains two coexisting armies. This civil engineering exchange would've come with a side of marinara crullers and apologies in Louisville.

There are a claimed 51,000 fans at Kentucky's spring game, more than were claimed at five regular season games in 2012 and something like 10 times as many as showed up last year.

New head coach Mark Stoops has lit a fire, likely aided by the basketball team's NIT disappearance. I never thought I'd spend an evening in Lexington and not hear a word about basketball from a single UK fan, but it happened. The commitment of four-star wide receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass, Stoops' other recruiting successes, those Nebraska transfers, new offensive coordinator Neal Brown's Air Raid offense being similar to former head coach Hal Mumme's: these are the things Kentucky fans talk about these days.

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Former No. 1 draft pick Tim Couch on the video board, intoning from above that Brown's offense is the same as Mumme's.

A literal air raid siren sounds after every touchdown Saturday night, a renewed tradition that calls back more than a decade to Couch and Mumme and Mike Leach and Tony Franklin. You should hear how many Kentucky fans assure themselves Brown's offense matches Mumme's exactly, despite emerging quarterback Jalen Whitlow running from a diamond formation and a weak receiving corps being fed a heavy diet of screen passes.

The crowd isn't stuck on that memory of Mumme beating a weak Alabama, though. They're already aspiring to the offense Texas A&M beat a strong Alabama with.

Louisville fans admit having a little brother complex when it comes to Big Blue Nation (one Cardinals fan, not Mark, is already stressed about Louisville's path to another BCS bid being panned as too easy), while Kentucky football fans have the same with the rest of the SEC. The Cats have to play like underdogs, fearless, like Mumme did.

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UK's Commonwealth Stadium, a 40-year-old gray oval flying flags of every SEC rival, doesn't really play rap music. It does not have a DJ. It's surrounded by parking, not rust belt stuff about to be replaced. Few fans left early. It has only a handful of fixed sponsor logos, plus a rotating ribbon screen that also displays the names of former Wildcat football greats.

That includes Bear Bryant's name. Bryant coached eventual Louisville football architect Howard Schnellenberger at UK, then left after being upstaged by basketball coach Adolph Rupp, and in those two phrases might be every metaphor you need to explain this state, other than horses and Bill Monroe and the Creation Museum and the first two Constitutional amendments.

Other than West Virginia, Kentucky might be the most insular state east of the Mississippi, in sports and otherwise. I see almost zero non-Kentucky school logos and maybe six or seven pro team logos the entire day: a handful of Reds C's at Keeneland and a 49ers cap on a Louisville alum who played for the 49ers. All else is K's and L's.

This is the kind of distinction that arises when you birth both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. And Kentuckians and West Virginians both refer to each other the same way Alabamians and Georgians refer to each other, as reluctant siblings who look for all the world like twins. You couldn't pay me enough to live over there, they say, despite being the same passionate people with trademark liquors, the same from the hills all the way down to the coal. West Virginia is all blue and gold and black and gold, while Kentucky is all blue, except for the red.

To drive I-64 between Lexington and Louisville is to pass at least two of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail's large distilleries, not red, not blue, but brown.

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