Written by: Jeff Rozen
Posted by: Tina Cox
There’s a lot of truth in that old chestnut; just ask the Louisville Cardinals.
On Dec. 26th, your Kentucky Wildcats will host Rick Pitino and his randy band of good time boys, and like clockwork, they’ll leave with another loss. Beating Louisville is what Calipari and Kentucky do. You know it, I know it, heck… even they know it. But believe it or not, there was a time when the birdies looked forward to this game.
Not only looked forward to it, but were literally salivating over it.
Why? Why would any team, or anyone, be so willing to face the humiliation and domination that they have in this one-sided rivalry?
It all goes back to a time before the two played on a regular basis, back to the ‘70s, before a loss in the so-called “Dream Game” in 1983 encouraged Kentucky to schedule the Cardinals. For years prior to that meeting, Louisville coach Denny Crum had waged a one-man campaign to get a game with UK.
Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall firmly refused these overtures, and Crum became ever-more shrill, demanding and obnoxious. Because he perceived UK’s refusal to schedule his team as a snub, the Louisville coach began an almost constant stream of invective aimed at the Big Blue. These tirades seemed to elicit almost universal media sympathy. From the infamous “we’ll play them any time, any place” challenge to mocking comments about the Wildcat Lodge and even some questionable jabs at UK recruits, he made no secret of his disdain for the Cats. You could say he had laid down the gauntlet.
Captivated by his energy, the state’s media fell almost immediately into his corner. Crum and the Cardinal brain-trust shrewdly played the role cast for them by such self-serving pundits as the loathsome Billy Reed. They were now the exciting, fresh Cardinals- Everyman’s team. Pitted against them was Kentucky, the snobs of the college basketball world. And so was born a ridiculous morality play of sorts, with UK as the villain and U of L as the virtuous herald of a new age in the state’s basketball fortunes.
Most Louisville fans fell right in with him, bragging to anyone who’d listen about how they’d beat Kentucky… yes… “any time, any place.”
The question of the day was always the same: “Why won’t Kentucky play Louisville?” So were the answers. “They’re afraid.” “They’re arrogant.” Or any number of other such simple-minded explanations. In the rush to label UK, no one ever bothered to examine the other side of the coin: Just WHY did U of L want this game so badly?
Why? Well, Crum, and others at the school, must surely have realized that they were in a win-win situation. As the newly emergent program, the Cards would have nothing to lose and everything to gain from a meeting with UK. With it would come unprecedented media exposure, a critical factor in the expansion of their fan base and recruiting ability. In other words, it was for their self-promotional benefit. Sure, the fig-leaf was always in place- “it would be good for the fans,” “good for basketball in the state”– but the real reasons were there for anyone to see.
With this being the case, the logical question then becomes “why WOULD UK play them,” not “why WON’T they play them.” Those in charge at Kentucky would have been foolish, if not downright irresponsible, to assist in the effort to build a national power (read: recruiting rival) right in their own backyard. After all, the Cards were doing pretty well without their help.
This simple truth was never brought to light. Throughout those years, Kentucky was always unfairly portrayed as “arrogant,” “stubborn,” “snobbish,” etc. Crum was credited for doing his best to promote his emerging program, while UK was cut to pieces for acting within its own self-interest. Hall and AD Cliff Hagan were making a rational decision based on the UNIVERSITY of Kentucky’s best interests- in other words, they were doing their jobs. For this, they were universally denounced.
What rankles was the way the perpetrators trampled the feelings of the vast majority of fans in this state- the Big Blue Nation. Not once was the passionate allegiance of so many here to UK ever considered. Nothing would stand in the way of U of L, which had so much to gain, or the media, which smelled a good story. They would agitate relentlessly for more than a decade. The University of Kentucky basketball program would be the victim of countless insults, and not one accounting was ever made to its silent majority of devoted fans.
By the early 1980s, there appeared to be another good reason for the Cards to play Kentucky: the likelihood of a win. Crum’s bunch was the scourge of the nation back then. Their NCAA success- including their first NCAA title in 1980- along with something of a downturn in UK’s fortunes seemed to make the demand for the long-awaited game much more urgent.
Into this mess stepped the NCAA. All it took was a little tweaking of the tournament brackets, and voila! The Cats and the Cards would play! Actually, they had to do this twice, because Middle Tennessee spoiled the fun in 1982. There are still mentally challenged U of L fans who will tell you that Kentucky “threw” this game because of their “fear” of the big, bad Cards.
Finally, in 1983, it all came together. The original “Dream Game” was kind of like a coming out party for what everyone imagined would be the state’s dominant team in the future: U of L. But as the victors danced that day, a seed was planted that would lead to many bitter harvests for the Cards: the Kentucky-Louisville series was born.
After the game the UK athletics board, citing the “positive” atmosphere in Knoxville, ordered the basketball program to begin negotiations with their counterparts at Louisville. Of course, the desired outcome was the new series. This was hailed as a great moment for the state (I know it made my life complete), but was seen as an even greater accomplishment for Crum and the Cards. They finally had the game that they had so coveted. Now they could go to work on their nemesis and prove their superiority for all to see.
In a rare moment of diplomacy, Crum had once mused that a series between the two schools would probably be about even. By 1983, however, few believed that, especially in Louisville. The Cards were at their all-time high; UK, on the other hand, had not been the same since Jack Givens and company departed after winning the1978 NCAA championship. Many around the state expected the Cards to dominate. A lot of timid Kentucky fans reluctantly agreed. Of course, the Cardinal faithful (a group whose ranks had curiously swelled… hmm) were supremely confident that dominating what many of them now lovingly referred to as the “Big Blew It” would be no problem…
Only there was a problem- their team had to play the games on the court, not with their mouths, and it really hasn’t gone so well for them.
Oh, sure, they won the Dream Game, but not without a fight- the 2nd ranked Cards were taken to overtime by the 12th ranked and supposedly overmatched Wildcats before finally pulling away to a 12 point win.
Since then, it’s been all Kentucky, by an embarrassing 24-11 margin. And that’s been “any time, any place:”
*UK has won 13 of 17 games in Rupp Arena;
*UK is 9-7 in Louisville;
*And most importantly, UK leads 2-0 in neutral court NCAA games
To add insult to injury, the Cats have laid some memorable thumpings on the Cards. Who can ever forget Sam Bowie’s return in 1983, the first regular season game which resulted in a 65-44 blowout, or the 30 point shellacking Tubby Smith laid on them in 1999?
And then there’s 85-51. Eddie Sutton is long gone, but Little Brother still feels that one.
Of Kentucky’s 24 victories, nearly half (11) have been by double digits. And while the Cats own two 4-game and four 3-game win streaks, UofL has yet to win more than 2 in a row.
Finally, there’s this: of Louisville’s 11 wins since 1984, 2 came while UK was on probation, and another 2 came during the de facto probation the program suffered under Billy Gillispie. That, in essence, leaves the Cards a grand total of 7 legit wins over the Cats in the last 30 years.
Any time, any place, indeed.
We’re now more than three decades into the modern series. None of us can see into the future, but I wonder: if they had known then what we know now, would they still want the Cats so badly?
Either way, they got them- right between the eyes.