The Ohio State-Michigan football rivalry didn’t die after Woody Hayes stunned the sports world and ended his coaching career with one punch in the 1978 Gator Bowl. AC/DC didn’t call it quits when lead singer Bon Scott passed away in 1980. The Office continued for multiple seasons after Michael Scott left Scranton. Some of these entities endured gracefully. Others did not.
This is the uncertainty currently facing the Kentucky-Louisville basketball rivalry, one which is suddenly without the man who spent the better part of the last 30 years as its most significant character.
Rick Pitino becoming the first coach in NCAA history to win national basketball championships with two different schools is a big deal for obvious reasons. In theory, the names of the two schools shouldn’t matter. The fact that the fan bases of those two programs just so happen to loathe each other more thoroughly than any two in the country is why it does.
The 2017 installment of the annual “Battle for the Bluegrass” game feels strange, almost wrong, for a number of different reasons. For starters, it’s being played in the afternoon on a non-holiday work day, a fact which has dominated a healthy chunk of the local conversation this week. Then there’s the issue of neither team having looked especially daunting over the season’s first eight weeks. Kentucky has an OK home win over Virginia Tech and losses to a good Kansas team and a meh UCLA squad. Louisville, meanwhile, has zero wins of substance, a road loss to a good Purdue team and a two-point home loss to a good enough Seton Hall club.
This isn’t the pregame makeup fans in the Commonwealth have gotten accustomed to in recent years.
Still, none of this explains the strange feeling leading up to the 2017 grudge match as well as the absence of Pitino does. The man who revived, enthused, and tortured both fan bases at various points over the last 30 years is no longer involved with either Louisville or Kentucky. Neither side seems to know exactly how to feel about that just yet.
The composition of a superior rivalry is always at least somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Kentucky-Louisville takes a backseat to no rivalry, college or professional, when it comes to pure vitriol, disdain, and culture clashes between the two fan bases in question. One weakness of the series compared to a competitor like Duke-North Carolina or Alabama-Auburn in football has been that, historically, the most successful periods of time for Kentucky and Louisville have not overlapped.
Louisville dominated the 1980s while Kentucky was saddled with underachieving teams and eventually trouble with the NCAA. The script was flipped in the next decade, where Pitino returned the Wildcats to national prominence while the Cardinals lost a step or five in the final seasons of the Denny Crum era. Both programs had their moments in the 2000s, but neither won a national title or attained the national standing their fan bases expect.
The current decade, thanks in large part to the two men captaining the state’s largest sport vessels, has been different.
Rival fans love to rip on John Calipari for winning just one national championship since arriving in Lexington, but as much as anything else, that’s a nod to the absurd amount of talent Calipari has brought to UK. The Wildcats have played their way to the Final Four in four of Calipari's eight seasons at the helm, winning the national title in 2012. No program has produced more first-round NBA draft picks than Kentucky's 24, or spent more weeks ranked No. 1 than the Wildcats have since the start of the 2009-10 season.
Not to be outdone, since 2008, Louisville has made it to, at least, the regional finals five times. The Cardinals crashed the Final Four in 2012 and won their third national championship a year later. Even with the dark cloud that has been hanging over the program since the fall of 2015, U of L is one of just four schools that has won 20 or more games in each of the last 15 seasons. Kansas, Duke, and Gonzaga are the others.
Before Calipari arrived at Kentucky, UK and U of L had played just three times in games where both teams were ranked in the top 10. This occurred in three of the 10 meetings between Pitino and Calipari’s teams, including in two of the last three years.
Off the court, the battles between the Bluegrass State’s two highest-profile humans burned even brighter.
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 a question 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 couldn’t absorb a punch like that without swinging back, 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 coaches consistently maintained that their comments weren’t directed at any one person or program in particular. But acts like Calipari pronouncing “Louisville” as “Lewisville” or Pitino giving the middle finger to a Rupp Arena heckler in 2015 always spoke louder than the denials. Subtlety has never been a strong suit for either.
There was just one issue with the Calipari-Pitino era of the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry. Unlike the previously mentioned “Ten Year War” between Woody Hayes of Ohio State and Bo Schembechler of Michigan, the rivalry scales were tipped decidedly in one direction. Calipari got the better of Pitino in eight of the ten Battle for the Bluegrass meetings between the two. He defeated the Cardinals in the 2012 Final Four as a heavy favorite, and then did the trick again two years later as an underdog in the Sweet 16.
Louisville’s lone victories over Kentucky during Calipari’s tenure as the front man for Big Blue Nation have both been somewhat odd in hindsight. In late 2012, a Cardinal team that would go on to win the national title squeaked out a three-point win over a Wildcat squad bound for the NIT. Last season, U of L pulled out a more impressive 73-70 triumph in what we now know was Pitino’s last appearance in the rivalry he played such a large part in.
Like the programs themselves, the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry has always been bigger than one or two individuals. The Wildcats and Cardinals will play on Friday afternoon in Lexington, and whatever takes place over the course of those two hours will be discussed ad nauseum throughout the state of Kentucky for the following 364 days. That’s the way it always has been and the way it will continue to be.
Even with that being the case, it’s impossible to ignore that for the first time in a long time there is some significant mystery about where the rivalry goes from here.
What if 32-year-old David Padgett comes to Lexington and takes down John Calipari in his 13th game as a head coach?
What if Louisville’s next head coach never learns to dislike Kentucky?
What if this FBI probe torpedoes the Cardinal program for multiple seasons? Does the Louisville game become a no-win situation for UK?
Will this whole thing ever be as entertaining as it was when it was Rick vs. Cal?
Despite the relative one-sidedness of the on-court results, the Pitino-Calipari era is destined to take up a large chunk of any telling of the history of Kentucky vs. Louisville. It seems more likely than not that the legend of the eight-year period will only grow more outlandish with time. Feuds that never existed will be created, quotes that were never uttered will be fabricated, and tales of the quality of play in the 2009-2017 meetings between the Cardinals and Wildcats will be exaggerated. And that’s fine. That’s all part of a great rivalry.
Another part of a great rivalry is moving on from a signature period of time and adapting to life without key figures. That process, for both sides, begins Friday afternoon in Lexington.