Kentucky and Louisville. The big one. The bitterest of bitter rivalries. A juxtaposition of U2's famous Pride (in the name of love) seems the perfect allegorical starting point.
This is a burning question we seem to ask ourselves every year, especially when we hear Dickie V. on television during the annual Duke/North Carolina games going on and on about how that is college basketball's greatest rivalry. With that in mind, I encourage you to read Mike's post over at the Card Chronicle addressing this question, and why he thinks that the Cardinals vs. the Wildcats is the greatest of them all.
I must tell you, however, that I find quite a bit to disagree about in Mike's piece, and some that is downright objectionable. But because his reasoning is so tied up with racial politics, and because I am loath to entangle sports and politics on this blog, I will simply say that I don't agree with Mike's apparent take that racial animus is the essential basis of the rivalry between the two schools. There is no question that it is a factor, I just don't believe the modern rivalry truly has its roots in racialism. I also don't find his suggestion that Jamaal Mashburn is "unlikely to show up on the list of a Breathitt County man's top five all-time favorite Cats" either clever or likely to be true, but I suppose we will have to agree to disagree about that, since there is no way I know of to test Mike's premise.
But I do agree with much of what Mike has to say, including his conclusion that Louisville and Kentucky, not Duke and North Carolina, represent the most intense rivalry in all of college basketball. That is what I want to focus on.
Adolph Rupp is largely responsible for the rivalry that exists today, but not for reasons related to race relations. Jon Scott tells this tale very well on his website, and I will jump ahead to the beginning of the Rupp years and Jon's explanation of how this went:
A large reason for the break was the arrival in 1930 of Adolph Rupp to the Lexington campus. Rupp was dedicated to bringing Kentucky basketball to a national level, something he was amazingly successful at as he made Kentucky a name synonymous with college basketball. However part of that effort was to break all ties with in-state schools. Rupp believed that in order to effectively build a strong program which could compete on a national level, it paid no dividends to become mired in rivalries against in-state competition. This philosophy frustrated to no end many rival fans and coaches, chief among them Western Kentucky's legendary coach Ed Diddle, Eastern Kentucky's Paul McBrayer and others, including Louisville's Peck Hickman and later Denny Crum.
The snub was especially stinging for Louisville as they could only watch as Rupp began to host a hugely successful series against Notre Dame in the nearby Jefferson County Armory along with seeing UK dominate many SEC Tournaments which were held at the facility. During the 1930's, the University of Kentucky also enjoyed great success in attracting many prep players from the city of Louisville, among others Warfield Donohue, Russell Ellington (who transferred to UK from the University of Louisville), James Goforth, Joseph Hagan and future All-American Lee Huber.
But then came Wesley Unseld, and the bitter recruiting battle that ensued. This event, in my opinion, is a major nexus of the modern Kentucky-Louisville rivalry. Again, from Jon Scott's Rivalry Text:
But the recruitment of Unseld by UK proved to be daunting. Most of it was Kentucky's fault, as in the years previous they watched idly by as standout black players like Tom Thacker and Clem Haskins played high school ball virtually under UK's nose, but were never recruited and ended up taking their talents elsewhere. When Rupp traveled to Louisville to visit Unseld at his home, Wes only stayed for a few minutes before leaving for another engagement. Rupp stayed and talked with Unseld's parents, however it was a tough sell as the elder Unseld was concerned why UK had not recruited any black players before. Lamented Rupp about the visit, "we never got anywhere at all with that situation."
Unseld received threatening letters, purportedly from Kentucky fans, suggesting he shouldn't attend UK. It was never established whether these were indeed UK fans or fans of another school masquerading as UK fans in an attempt to sway him away from the Lexington campus.
University of Louisville Head Coach Denny Crum was not in his new job for long before he walked into a hornets nest regarding UK. When asked about UK's freshman recruiting class (consisting of Kevin Grevey, Jimmy Dan Conner, Mike Flynn and Bob Guyette among others), Crum said he was 'not overly impressed' with the Wildcats. He said about Louisville's class that "I wouldn't trade any of them for our two best freshmen at Louisville - Allen Murphy and Junior Bridgeman" He went on to say that Allen Murphy, "would eat any of the UK's guys alive."The words enraged UK fans who began to call the new coach 'Denny the Crumb' among other less than complementary terms. Already smarting from the phenomenal success of UCLA and John Wooden in the 1960's which cast UK's historic dominance of college basketball in grave doubt, the last thing Kentucky fans wanted to see was a brash disciple of Wooden take up residence in nearby Louisville. When asked about the furor he created, Crum said "I knew about Kentucky and their great basketball tradition, but when I thought of college basketball I thought of UCLA, not Kentucky. In my opinion, coach Wooden was and always will be the greatest coach in the history of the game. I had a hard time understanding why everybody was so upset about the things I said. How could anybody ignore the success of Coach Wooden and the UCLA program?"
Denny Crum's success on the court led directly to the renewal of the modern rivalry game under threat of legislative mandate, and that success further enraged Cat fans, who were loathe to share the success of their program with another in-state team, particularly one coached by Crum. Kentucky fans continued to stoke the anger throughout the 1980's, creating pejoratives like "Little Brother" to describe Louisville, which former coach Joe B. Hall famously repeated. What could they expect from the Cardinal fans but resentment? Not only that, but Louisville was enjoying unprecedented success against the Wildcats on the court, particularly in 1983, further stoking the flames of passion and dislike among Kentucky fans. But that all changed in the 1990's.
With the coming of Rick Pitino, Kentucky basketball enjoyed wide-ranging success, and marked the beginning of a gradual decline from national prominence of the Cardinals. Louisville still had success against the Wildcats on the court, but it was now becoming clear that the Cardinals were going to be on the short end of the rivalry for some time to come. Even the departure of Pitino and the coming of Tubby Smith did not reverse this trend, and the anger from the UK side gradually abated. Many Kentucky fans would cheer for Louisville over other teams, and professed the Cards as their "second favorite". Cardinal fans, more and more frustrated with their return to second-class status in the state, began to fume even more. Loathing of Kentucky became a rite of passage, and you would very rarely find "Cardinal first, Wildcats second" fans. This has festered on through the new millennium, and now it is Cardinal fans who have an almost irrational disgust for Kentucky fans, the exact reverse of the 1970's and 1980's. As is typical of such a cycle, Wildcat fans are again beginning to reciprocate that loathing with their own, fueled by the return of their former coach to the state as the head coach of Louisville.
So where does that leave us? I would argue that there is no basketball rivalry anywhere as bitter as this, and the rivalry between Duke and North Carolina simply pales in comparison. UK-UL is a festering sore that has been treated with dirty bandages, denied antiseptic, and the pain of it sets brother against brother. It is as bitter as they come, rivaled only by the extremes of college football's most vitriolic resentments -- Auburn-Alabama or Florida-Florida State. UNC-Duke seems positively Marques of Queensbury by comparison.