Commentary

UK-UL is 'bigger than the Super Bowl'

Kentucky and Louisville fans draw the battle lines, prepare for Saturday.

Originally Published: March 29, 2012
By Brian Bennett | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's a little after lunchtime on Wednesday, and Fan Outfitters -- a store geared exclusively toward peddling Kentucky and Louisville merchandise -- is packed. Despite having four sales clerks working the registers, the line stretches out the door.

Fans like Jamil Shalash have come to dress themselves for battle. Shalash is wearing a red Louisville T-shirt but is poking around the new Final Four-themed items before he leaves for New Orleans on Friday. He's gone to a few other similar stores around town and says the lines were just as long everywhere.

The most epic sports duel this state has ever witnessed arrives Saturday night, when bitter rivals Kentucky and Louisville meet in the Final Four. Neutrality is not an option this week, especially not for Shalash's neighbors in nearby Shelby County.

[+] EnlargeJoe B. Hall
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/Getty Images Former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall knows all about how crazed the state of Kentucky is for its college hoops.

"They just get downright ugly," said the 46-year-old Louisville alumnus. "There are family members who are not talking to each other, who are doing stuff to each other's yards. Hopefully, it's all in fun."

For all rational-minded people, yes. But with the stakes this high in an already supercharged conflict, forget about much clear thinking.

Duke-North Carolina gets more hype, yet no other college basketball rivalry matches the intensity of this bitter in-state feud, which is fueled by cultural differences and historic grudges. It's a piping-hot cauldron of urban versus rural divides, racial strife and inferiority complexes, poured into a state with no major pro teams and few other reasons to puff out its chest to the rest of the nation.

Though the two programs have become more alike than either would like to admit in recent seasons, the arrival of formerly beloved Kentucky coach Rick Pitino at Louisville added a whole new angle to the animosity. Toss in the barely concealed disgust between Pitino and John Calipari, and … well, you get things like this week's widely reported fistfight between two opposing fans while they waited for treatment at a dialysis center. Not a lot of clear thinking going on there.

The two campuses are separated by about 75 miles. But in the battleground city of Louisville, where Big Blue Nation is nearly as prevalent as Cardinals fans, it feels much closer than that. Here, the distance is more like a few feet -- the space between office cubicles, bar stools and even breakfast tables in many divided houses. (I speak from experience, as all of my family holiday gatherings growing up resembled uncles and cousins trying to outdo each other wearing their finest red and blue fan gear.)

The intertwined nature of the fan bases can create some odd mixtures. Like on Tuesday in the main dining area at Louisville's student center, where 20-year-old sophomore Darnell Dennis boldly wore a blue Kentucky hat deep inside enemy lines.

"I'm pretty brave," said Dennis, a Lexington native who couldn't turn down a scholarship to Louisville. "People have already been taking my hat off and trying to take my hoodies from me. It's intense."

Only one event in the state's history comes close to this week's encounter: The 1983 meeting between the two schools in the NCAA tournament. Before that, they had not played for 24 years as Kentucky steadfastly refused to schedule Louisville or any other state programs. The Cardinals won in overtime, forcing the Wildcats to finally start playing them on a regular basis.

How monumental was that game? Joe B. Hall was the Wildcats' coach at the time. He won a national title at Kentucky and made it to the Final Four in 1984, exacting revenge on Louisville in the Sweet 16 along the way. But Hall says "we never got over that loss [in '83]. It's been a thorn in our side ever since."

The "Dream Game," as they called it in 1983, was just for the right to go to the Final Four. People have long dreamed of a Final Four matchup between the two schools. Now that it's here, improbably, the buildup has gripped the entire state.

"There are just jabs back and forth everywhere you go," said Shalash, who was born in Lexington among Kentucky fans but played soccer at Louisville. "I couldn't imagine explaining this rivalry to someone who's not from here."

The 1983 game changed the balance of power and the very nature of the rivalry between the two programs. But this time, there's a trip to the national championship game at stake and, for Kentucky, a dream season that could get derailed by its most hated opponent.

"People who are older that went through the first one with us probably feel like that was bigger because it hadn't been played in 24 years," said Denny Crum, who was Louisville's coach in '83. "The younger people who didn't experience that probably feel like this one is the most important. I don't know how you can say which one is bigger."

There's no doubt this one is huge. Battle stations are being readied for Saturday.

[+] EnlargeDenny Crum
US PresswireFormer Cardinals coach Denny Crum coached -- and won -- the "Dream Game" in 1983 versus Kentucky.

Police in both Louisville and Lexington announced plans to close certain streets and beef up their presence around each campus as a precaution. Bars are expecting record crowds and trying to figure out how to handle them. Zanzabar, located near Louisville's campus, put a message on its Facebook page saying that only Cardinals fans could enter the premises Saturday night, not as an affront to Kentucky supporters but "to prevent fighting."

One of the city's largest bars, The Sports and Social Club in the Fourth Street Live! complex, is requiring reservations and minimum purchases for each table. General manager Tony Thomas said that the 566-capacity establishment was already about 85 percent reserved by Wednesday afternoon, and his cell phone wouldn't stop ringing.

Thomas plans to separate Louisville and Kentucky fans in different cheering sections. He has hired four extra security guards for the night and promises to eject anyone at the first hint of trouble.

"It's going to happen everywhere," he said of potential altercations. "It will probably happen at somebody's grandma's house."

Buffalo Wild Wings in the Springhurst section of Louisville expects every table to be claimed from open to close on Saturday.

"It's going to be bigger than the Super Bowl," house manager Jacob Fair said. "Kentucky is college basketball, so we're expecting a much bigger crowd than we've ever had for the Super Bowl."

It's debatable whether the scenes will be more intense in Louisville, Lexington or in the epicenter of New Orleans, which is being called "Blue Orleans" and "Lou Orleans" this week, depending on the perspective. Ironically, the most level-headed people around might be the two men who waged the last Bluegrass battle of similar importance.

Hall and Crum host a daily sports call-in radio show where the thermostat remains atypically cool. The two rivals-turned-pals are as likely to talk about hunting and fishing as they are basketball, and earlier this week they spent a large portion of their show calmly discussing various aspects of officiating. At one point, a caller named Kevin told the hosts that they "really needed to talk a little more about fishing."

The "Joe B. and Denny Show" has shown that blue and red can coexist peacefully, and both Hall of Fame coaches hope their friendly banter has helped bring about at least some detente between the fan bases.

"We've tried to demonstrate that we're both Kentuckians, and if we lose to one another, we hope the other one goes on to great success," Hall said. "We're not into slashing tires or spray painting cars or getting into fights at dialysis clinics. That's not what an in-state rivalry should be about."

It shouldn't be. But in the fog of a battle such as this, rationality is in short supply.

Brian Bennett covers college sports for ESPN.com.