Commentary

The Commonwealth's great divide

Updated: December 28, 2012, 3:27 AM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Even after all these years, nearly 20 in the commonwealth of Kentucky, the resident authority on college basketball's fiercest rivalry is easily identifiable as an outsider.

His voice and mannerisms give him away as the worst sort of impostor, a northeastern Yankee interloper. And so because he is not of the rivalry born, some refuse to give him his due, insisting he is little more than a carpetbagging expert.

Yet no one has attempted to do the impossible like Rick Pitino has in his career, straddling the barbed-wire divide between the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville by serving as each school's demigod in residence, their head basketball coach.

If you want to understand and compare this rivalry to other sports feuds, then this is where you go -- inside the office of the man who has been universally beloved and despised by both sides.

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
Jim Owens/Icon SMIRick Pitino knows what kind of atmosphere to expect when Louisville hosts Kentucky on Saturday.

And you ask the man who has coached the Celtics and the Knicks, who grew up a Yankees fan in a town cluttered with Mets lovers, the simplest question: How bad is it here?

"Oh," Pitino says, "this is the sickest of them all."

Duke and North Carolina loyalists might disagree; Yankees and Red Sox devotees have a decent argument, too. But the Blue Devils and Tar Heels move on for most of the other 363 days of the year. Boston and New York have Connecticut as a buffer.

Aside from maybe Alabama and Auburn football, it is hard to find such yearlong enmity breeding and cultivating within the state borders like Kentucky. It is like a border-to-border Petri dish of festering vitriol and disdain.

And nowhere does the sickness exist as feverishly as it does in Louisville.

This is where the two fan bases cross-pollinate, if you will, more than anywhere else. You will find Kentucky fans in a place like Murray, a good five-hour drive from Lexington, and sitting boldly in the bar at the Cardinal Hall of Fame Restaurant, just a few blocks from the UL campus. But you will be hard-pressed to find Cardinals fans much beyond the Louisville borders.

"You're the county nut if you're a Louisville fan out in the state somewhere," longtime Louisville radio personality Terry Meiners said.

Which is why Saturday's game between the two schools will be especially entertaining. It is in Louisville, at the Cards' home palace, the Yum! Center. While three early losses for Kentucky has downgraded the excitement nationally from what was expected to be a Final Four rematch between two top-five teams, nothing can quell the zeal here.

"My in-laws live in Louisville, and that's the front lines of all of it," said UK play-by-play man Tom Leach. "People there, they'll look at this game differently because when they go to work, to parties, that's what people talk about because there are fans from both schools in town. You've got to live with the result all year."


It is 1983, and Louisville is ranked No. 2 in the country, trailing only Houston's Phi Slama Jama -- famous for its dunking and "above the rim" style of play -- led by Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon.

[+] EnlargeKentucky and Louisville
AP Photo / Mark HumphreyNCAA tournament fate brought Louisville and Kentucky back together in 1983.

Mark Coomes, who would become a longtime writer at the Louisville Courier-Journal, refers to it now as his "Year of Living Dangerously." He was a student at Kentucky then, but a Louisville fan, a troublesome intersection for a guy who liked to talk and wasn't afraid to fight to back up his words. There were more than a few verbal spats and a couple of physical ones at the Sigma Nu house, thanks largely to the fraternity brother who refused to root for the Wildcats.

Like a lot of Cardinals fans, Coomes was fed up. His first real basketball memory came in 1972, when new coach Denny Crum led Louisville to the Final Four. But despite that, and a national championship in 1980, the Cards still were treated like second-class citizens in their own state.

Big Blue then was an impossible pandemic to overcome, bred and fostered through decades of impressive achievement, especially compared to everyone else in the commonwealth.

And for 24 years, Kentucky had steadfastly refused to play Louisville. There was never a reason given, not a good one at least, but the notion at least among Louisville fans was that UK wouldn't deign to play its urban neighbor, as if all that success still didn't make the Cardinals a worthy foe.

All feuds start somewhere, with a perceived slight or a real one. This was the start for UK and UL, and more for the city of Louisville and its red-wearing fans.

"Here's Louisville coming up, shooting off its mouth and everybody but Cat fans knew we were every bit as good a program by then," Coomes said. "But they wouldn't play us."

The history is far more complex than the present. Today, this is just a game, joy for the winner and sorrow for the loser in a statewide battle for bragging rights. Then, it was so much more. It was about race and demographics, urban versus rural, the staid versus the new.

Louisville embraced integration far earlier than its reluctant neighboring state school, and Crum's teams were a personification of the time, unapologetically brash and loud, wearing their Afros big and playing the game with style and flair.

By comparison, Kentucky under Joe B. Hall was straight-laced and conservative, unwavering to the changing times.

"It wasn't until high school that I really ran into the racial overtones," Coomes said. "I'd say, 'But y'all have black players, too.' And people would say, 'We have black players. Y'all have n------.' I had no idea that was behind it all."

And so when it all came crushing together, when race and demographics, country and city manifested itself into two basketball schools, one suddenly succeeding wildly and the other failing to live up to its impossibly high standards, it became what Coomes called "a festering boil," until the NCAA offered a lance in 1983, setting up the two in a regional final later dubbed "The Dream Game."

The Cardinals would go on to win an overtime classic down the road in Knoxville, Tenn., earning a trip to the Final Four and opening the doors for what has become an annual game.

Finally able to settle things off the court, the two fan bases reached a sort of tolerable level of animosity. Coomes even remembers going to a game between the Cats and Cards post-Dream Game and wearing a red sports jacket, black tie and white shirt to a game in Rupp Arena.

"Not one foul word was uttered at me all day," he said.


The divide between the two schools may lack the social context it had in the 1980s, but it is every bit as nasty, maybe even more mean-spirited because it lacks nuance and reasoning.

There is no rational reason for such intense dislike these days. Both are national programs in separate leagues, with little effect on one another outside of recruiting. Yet this is not one of those polite rivalries, where one side cheers for the other except when they play one another.

[+] EnlargeOakley
Dana O'Neil/ESPN.comGene Oakley, a longtime member of the Committee of 101, UK's blue-clad ushers, won't entertain the idea of rooting for Louisville.

"I just can't bring myself to do it," said Gene Oakley, who has spent 47 years in the Committee of 101, Kentucky's blue-clad ushers who work football and basketball games. "And if they play Duke or Indiana, I root for both of them to lose. I always tell my wife, I wish they could move the river and put Louisville on the other side, in Indiana. Just reroute the river and it will save us all a lot of trouble."

Oakley was kidding.

Maybe.

Or then again, maybe not if you listen to Meiners, the radio host who has been on the air for 28 years.

"Some people would turn away Santa Claus if he walked in with a red suit," Meiners said. "Red is not part of their lives. They bleed blue and are afraid to actually cut their finger and see to the contrary."

The dislike stretches from Paducah to Pikeville, but it is most complicated in the city of Louisville, where on a random November day, you are as likely to see a woman in a full Kentucky blue velour warm-up suit walking down the street (as we did) as you are to see a man in a U of L T-shirt.

Cars and trucks weave through town, UK flags flying off one, a Louisville bumper sticker on the next. It is a city divided.

In a local barbershop, Mr. Smith, one of Meltonious Shorter's barbers at Alpha IV East on Clay Street, hangs a UK or UL flag in the window to get people going. And in the Cardinal Hall of Fame Café, Cat fans have lunch while surrounded by Cardinals gear.

"Well there's no UK Hall of Fame restaurant in town," Rick Stoll, UK Class of '69, says by way of explanation. "Besides it's close and the food is good."

It's not 50/50. It only feels that way.

"You go to one bar, it's all Louisville fans," said Juan Withers, owner of Clean Cutz barber shop. "The one down the street, it's all Kentucky fans."

Officially, it's a much more one-sided city. In 2005, the Courier-Journal polled fans on their sports loyalties and 53.7 percent within the city counted themselves as UL fans compared to just 33 percent who identified themselves as Cats fans. And according to the two schools' alumni associations, Louisville understandably has a far greater base in Jefferson County (54,872 living alumni) than Lexington (16,112).

[+] EnlargeDerek Anderson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDerek Anderson transferred to Kentucky from Ohio State to play under Pitino and helped the Cats win the 1996 national title.

But here's the catch: There are just 22,160 living Louisville alumni in the rest of the state and other than Fayette County (where Lexington sits), none of Kentucky's 120 counties boasts more UK grads than Jefferson.

The dichotomy always existed, but fractured even more deeply in the early 1990s when Louisville native Derek Anderson, unrecruited by his favorite hometown school, opted to go to Ohio State. Two years later when things went south in Columbus, Anderson still didn't don the Cardinals' colors, instead heading to Lexington. In 1996, he helped the Wildcats to a national championship, converting the better part of his neighborhood into Big Blue fans.

"I know half my friends turned against Louisville then," Anderson said. "When I won a championship at Kentucky, that changed it for a lot of people. You go downtown now, go down 34th Street, it's divided. There are so many Kentucky fans. That never happened before. Never. If you rooted for Kentucky, you didn't tell anyone. Now they don't hide it."

No one hides their allegiances anymore, not these days when today's version of gossipy housewives -- message boards and social media -- gives a virtual voice to a fan's devotion.

Both Pitino and John Calipari's movements are tracked like deer in the forest -- where they are, who they're recruiting, what they're saying. It's an endless barrage of information designed to fan the flames of a rivalry that needs no gasoline for combustion.

For Pitino, living in the middle of the crosshairs can be especially tricky. Last month, when Louisville's football team was playing Rutgers in a pivotal Big East game, Pitino thought about gathering his basketball team together to watch the game at Molly Malone's, one of the coach's favorite spots.

He called ahead to see if he could get the upstairs room.

"Notre Dame was playing Kentucky, so they had people upstairs for that. Louisville was downstairs," Pitino said. "So no, we won't go. You have to be careful. The Cats play tonight? You don't want to go to that place."

The spillover between the two schools is everywhere, including on the airwaves where the local radio stations are practically political in their partisanship.

[+] EnlargeDenny Crum/Joe B. Hall
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesDenny Crum and Joe B. Hall were on opposite sides of the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry during their head coaching days. These days they host a radio show together, with the topic of discussion invariably centering on the Cardinals and Wildcats.

WKRD 790 is pro-Louisville, 1080 is for the UK fans.

"After the game, advertisers want to be with the loser station," Meiners said. "The audience is massive. The losers go on to whine and the winners want to hear the losers whine."

Ironically, the only two to really rise above the fray these days are the two lead actors from the past. Crum and Hall co-host a daily radio show that runs across the state. It's part homespun stories and conversation, part sports.

"It's rare when something doesn't come up about their basketball team or ours," Crum said. "But you know, Coach Hall and I, we're good friends now. We have a lot in common. We both like to hunt and fish; we love all the sports. We go duck hunting together and fishing. Our objective is to downplay the rivalry."


Pitino remembers the exact moment that he understood the essence of this rivalry.

Then the Kentucky coach, he was preparing for a game at Freedom Hall. He was alone, or so he thought, in the locker room when he heard someone sniffling in the showers.

He walked back to find Bill Keightley, the Wildcats' beloved equipment manager sitting on a stool in tears.

Concerned, Pitino asked Keightley if he was all right.

"He said, 'You'll never understand how much this game means,' and I said, 'You're not serious?'" Pitino remembered. "He said to me, 'You'll never understand. This is all that people will talk about.'"

The dumbfounded Pitino walked out of the locker room to explain to his assistant, Jim O'Brien, what he had just witnessed.

"It's tough for a Northeast person to understand, I think," Pitino said. "We grew up with the Knicks, the Yankees, but we would never get that worked up over a game. Sports are a meaningful distraction to people there. Here, it's not a distraction. It's their life."

And then Pitino paused, realizing that his most clarifying moment was also the most puzzling.

"You know I've lived here 20 years," he said, "and I guess I still don't get it."

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball