On the surface, it seems like Kentucky and Louisville should be in the midst of the college basketball equivalent of Ohio State and Michigan's "Ten Year War." The current era of the Bluegrass Rivalry hits on nearly every single one of the elements that made the "Woody vs. Bo" years so enticing for everyone who follows sports.
To start with, you have two of college basketball's blue-blood programs smack in the middle of one of their most successful runs.
Rival fans love giving John Calipari hell for winning just one national championship since arriving at Kentucky, but that's really just a nod to the absurd amount of talent he's brought to Lexington and the crazy number of times he's taken his teams to the sport's biggest stage. The Wildcats have played their way to the Final Four in four of Calipari's seven seasons at the helm, winning the national title in 2012. No program has produced more first-round NBA draft picks than Kentucky's 21, or spent more weeks ranked No. 1 than the Wildcats have since the start of the 2009-10 season.
Things, however, haven't necessarily been going poorly 60 miles to west of Lexington in Louisville, either.
The Cardinals have made it to, at least, the regional finals in five of the last nine years, crashing the Final Four in 2012 and winning its third national championship a year later. Had it not been for last season's self-imposed postseason ban, U of L would have the fifth-longest active streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. As it is, the Cardinals are still one of just four programs to have won 20 or more games in each of the last 14 seasons (also Kansas, Duke, and Gonzaga).
A second defining element of this rivalry is disdain. It would be there if neither program had won a game in the last five years, but it's ratcheted up more than a few notches when both are consistently near the top of the national rankings.
The use of "hate" is excessive in almost any context, especially when we're talking about sports, but the Battle of the Bluegrass brings utilization of the word closer to the edge of appropriateness than any other.
Without delving too much into the issues, there is a concrete disconnect between the city of Louisville and the state of Kentucky that the citizens of Jefferson County and the citizens of the other 119 counties both agree on. That disconnect might be best exemplified through the basketball rivalry.
The Cardinals rose to prominence thanks in large part to homegrown talent from the city of Louisville's West End —players like Westley Unseld and Darrell Griffith, who led U of L's high-flying "Doctors of Dunk" to the program's first national championship in 1980.
The rest of the state still idolizes Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones, Jeff Sheppard, and "The Unforgettables," a group of four seniors — three of whom just happened to be Kentucky boys — who stuck with the program through its probation years in the early '90s. The popularity of the group remained so high that one of the players, Corbin-born Richie Farmer, wound up being elected Agriculture Commissioner.
The easiest (and the most common) way for a Louisville fan to work a Big Blue Nation member into a tizzy is to insinuate that Adolph Rupp was a racist. Regardless of what Rupp's actual beliefs were, there's no question that, for a period of time, race played a huge factor in the strained relationship between the state's university and the university of its biggest city. Louisville fans still take pride in being just the second program to start five black players and make it to the Final Four. The first? The famous 1965-66 Texas Western squad that stunned Rupp's Wildcats in the national championship game.
Time tempered that strand of the rivalry, but its given rise to a new one: John Calipari vs. Rick Pitino.
Pitino and Calipari will square off Wednesday night at the KFC Yum! Center for the 10th time in the Battle of the Bluegrass. For the third time in four years, both teams will be ranked in the top 10. A loss would do nothing in the way of derailing the national title hopes for either side, but that doesn't mean that the blow will be cushioned. It never is.
For Kentucky, a win will be little more than throwing another helping of snow on the top of a rivalry avalanche. Another year to stare down at little brother from BBN's rightful place at the top of the college basketball food chain.
For Louisville, a win would be a welcome reprieve and a proper reminder that the recent series history doesn't tell the whole tale. A reminder that the Cardinals are still the state's most recent national champion, and perhaps an indication that there's still time to make this period in the rivalry's history about more than just UK's dominance in the face of the corresponding national success of the two programs.
Malik Monk and Deng Adel are pushing the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry forward.
Near the end of the 1990s, the Bluegrass Rivalry had simmered to about the lowest temperature possible. Denny Crum was nearing the end of his run, and his teams were no longer competing for national championships. Tubby Smith's were, but the successor to the fiery Rick Pitino was too congenial for U of L fans to loathe unabashedly the way they had before.
Everything changed in 2001 when Crum announced his retirement and Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich successfully convinced Pitino to return to the Commonwealth and take over at Kentucky's biggest rival.
"The rivalry never really entered into my mind," Jurich said of his thought process to SB Nation at the time. "I was simply focused on who I thought would do the best job and who I would enjoy working with the most. I thought that coach Pitino was the best coach in the entire country then, and I still think that today. I'm thankful every day that he chose to come here."
Less thankful were the denizens of Big Blue Nation, many of whom were already growing disillusioned with Smith and who couldn't process the decision Pitino had made. Pitino was the man who had not just lifted them out of the depths of probation, but the man that made Kentucky basketball one of the coolest programs in the country during the 1990s. In the minds of his former disciples, Pitino going to Louisville less than a decade after doing what he did at UK signified that he never really understood what the culture of Wildcat basketball is all about. He was never really one of them, a realization which simultaneously tainted an era of glory and gave rise to a great degree of anger.
Time has only backed up the assertion.
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When Pitino returned to Rupp Arena for the first time in 2001, he wasn't naive enough to believe he'd be received as a conquering hero. He knew the home fans would boo Louisville and might even throw a few jabs his way, but he expected that some, if not most, of them would remember. He thought they'd remember that he was the same person who took the program they love from one of its lowest points back to the sport's pinnacle. He thought they'd remember that his name is still hanging from the Rupp Arena rafters and that he was the man responsible for assembling the '95-'96 team that still ranks as one of the most dominant college basketball teams ever. He thought that no rivalry, regardless of its combustibility, could fully cloud all that.
He thought wrong.
When he walked onto the Rupp Arena floor on Dec. 29, 2001, Pitino was showered with boos and insults. When he looked into the crowd for the first time, he saw a sign that was directed at his wife. Though he's never said so publicly, those close to Pitino will tell you that particular game changed him, and signified the first time he fully understood that Kentucky-Louisville would always trump any single accomplishment, any single team, or any single individual.
Pitino embraced the hate and guided U of L back to national prominence, setting the stage for the full-on rivalry eruption that occurred in 2009 when a Kentucky program wounded by the brief Billy Gillispie disaster announced that it had hired John Calipari away from Memphis. Louisville fans already didn't like Calipari from his days with the rival Tigers, and though no one is able to pinpoint exactly where their once amiable relationship went awry, Coach Cal and Pitino weren't the best of friends either.
From a narrative standpoint, it was perfect.
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Kentucky fans immediately fell in love with Calipari. Accomplishing what Pitino had two decades prior, taking an injured program and restoring it to a perch on which its fan base believed they should perpetually exist. And he did it in less time.
With the signing of a top-ranked recruiting class headlined by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Calipari immediately took Kentucky from a program losing its grip on in-state superiority and made them the hot name in college basketball again. A year later, he had the Wildcats back in the Final Four for the first time since the season after Pitino left Lexington for the NBA. A year after that, he'd locked up the program's eighth national championship.
Calipari has also delighted his fan base off the court, where he hasn't hesitated to jump fully into the rivalry that fuels the state for 365 days a year.
When Pitino came out with the slogan "Louisville First" in 2011, Calipari countered with a "Players First" tagline that stressed the importance of getting players into the NBA over program success. When Pitino wrote a book titled "Success is a Choice," Calipari countered with a book titled "Success is the Only Option," and shrugged off the notion that the concept was in any way a reaction to his rival. When he was asked about why basketball in the state of Kentucky is so special, Calipari didn't hesitate to throw even more gas on the fire.
"It's a unique thing," Calipari said. "There's no other state, none, that's as connected to their basketball program as this one. Because those other states have other programs. Michigan has Michigan State, California has UCLA, North Carolina has Duke. It's Kentucky throughout this whole state, and that's what makes us unique."
Pitino wasn't about to let the show go unanswered, countering days later with:
"There are four things I've learned in my 59 years about people: I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid. If the shoe fits anyone wear it."
Both head coaches have consistently maintained that their comments and branding techniques are in no way directed at the other, but there was more subtlety in battling Coke-Pepsi ad campaigns.
All of these factors should join together to produce a period of time worthy of an HBO documentary or an ESPN 30 for 30 one day.
There's only one issue: Louisville can't seem to beat Kentucky.
Though Pitino had been 8-5 against Calipari in head-to-head meetings as college head coaches before Cal's arrival at UK, he has managed to beat him just one time in nine meetings with the two serving as the most prominent figures in America's most college hoops-crazed state. The fact that the series has been more Jim Tressel vs. Lloyd Carr than Bo Schembechler vs. Woody Hayes delights Kentucky fans to no end and frustrates Louisville fans who would otherwise be basking in the glow of one of the program's most successful stretches.
Most difficult to stomach of all for the Cardinals is that two of the eight losses have come deep in the NCAA Tournament — a Final Four loss in 2012 and a Sweet 16 defeat in a 2014 game that Louisville was favored to win. The contentious nature of the rivalry runs so deep and is so impossible to avoid, that after that Sweet 16 game, first-team All-American Russ Smith — who had just played his final college game — expressed sympathy not for himself or his teammates or his coach, but for the Louisville fans.
"I don't hold onto losses," Smith said. "I don't hold grudges. I don't hate anybody. I'm a positive person, and I'll go on. At the end of the day, this was a loss. I just empathize with the fans. I wish I could've given them the win. I'm so sorry. But for me, we simply lost to a great team and I have great respect for them. It's just another loss in the books for me."
Louisville's lone victory over Kentucky in the Calipari Era came in late 2012, when a Cardinal team that would eventually win the national title squeaked out an 80-77 home victory over the only Wildcat team in the last seven years that missed the NCAA Tournament. Instead of serving as a shining point of pride for natives of the Derby City, the game has wound up being just another example of U of L's odd tendency to tighten up in its most important annual non-conference contest.
Ask 10 college basketball fans in the Commonwealth about the reason for UK's recent dominance in the rivalry series, and you're liable to get 10 different answers. Some credit the fact that Kentucky's perennially young roster doesn't know enough about the rivalry to tighten up, you'll also talk to people who will claim that the game is officiated differently, and even more who will note that, more times than not, the Wildcats have simply fielded a better team than the Cardinals.
Despite Calipari's rise to national prominence, the central figure in the Bluegrass Rivalry remains Pitino. How could he not be when we're talking about the only coach in college basketball history to win national titles at two different programs, and the fan bases of those two programs just so happen to loathe each other more thoroughly than any two in the country.
Despite the fact that he's now been the head coach at Louisville for twice as long as he was the head coach at Kentucky, Pitino still seems to struggle with the rivalry and the part he plays in it. In a single conversation he'll both downplay its significance and recognize that he understands its gravity.
"You know, you can't run away from it," Pitino said. "It is what it is: it's Louisville-Kentucky. It's a big game, it's a great game, and I love it. I try not to get into the rivalry too much during practice because I don't want my players to get nervous. They already hear enough about it when they're at the mall or when they're in class. Does it mean a lot to me inside? There's no question about it."
And then later ...
"I'm a little bit different from most people who cheer for U of L in that I've got nothing but great respect for Kentucky. They've still got my name hanging from the rafters in their arena, and if I ever said a negative word about them it would be insulting every one of the players that I coached for those eight years, and I love those players dearly. I don't like knocking people or saying negative things about anyone. I've got great respect for everybody we play and Kentucky is no exception."
Respect isn't a word that gets tossed around much when the Cats and the Cards are involved, and it's not something Louisville can expect to receive much of until it finds itself back on the winning end of the annual clash. Until that happens, Kentucky's dominance will remain the prevailing theme of a period in the rivalry's history that still has the potential to be special.