Kentucky Basketball: The Soft Bigotry of High Expectations

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Bet you didn't see that lede coming, did you?

It's funny, you know, thinking about Kentucky basketball and its incredibly rich tradition, fan base, and overall success.  How can such a small state, population-wise, in an area where there is little extraordinary motivation to live (i.e. no beach, highly changeable weather, somewhat backward reputation) somehow find itself so often at the pinnacle of a sport like college basketball?  Well, we all know the answer, of course -- it was mostly because of the genius of one Adolph Rupp, and his ability to get the most from the young men he brought to Kentucky.

But that isn't all, is it?  Not only did Rupp capture four national championships, but he also instilled a winning tradition at Kentucky in basketball, even in the years that UK did not win the championship.  Even in the years when the team was rebuilding.  Even in the years when the NCAA hammer fell on UK for bad behavior.  Somehow, that winning tradition never changed.

What about now?  Kentucky has hit a rough patch in recent years, but by no means a historical one.  UK has had a long absence from the Final Four, but that is only a modest measure of success when it comes right down to it.  Kentucky has never measured success by, "We almost ..."

So now that the current Kentucky team has suddenly been exposed by some careful planning and excellent execution, is it time to panic?  Around here, almost any loss is enough to cause some to call for a new coach, a new AD, or to assure everyone who will listen that UK's current team is so talent-deficient that it is a wonder we win at all.  That's not news, nor is it new -- it has been going on in the Commonwealth since Adolph Rupp's days.

Most readers here won't remember this, but at the end of his tenure, Adolph Rupp was adored by many, even most UK fans.  But a significant minority thought he was past his prime, and made no bones about saying he should retire.  I was a young man at the time, but I recall many conversations with my elders suggesting it was time for Rupp to move on, that he was no longer effective as a coach, that we needed somebody younger and with more energy.  You may think that Rupp's forced retirement would have caused an uproar in Kentucky, but in reality, fans desiring just such an outcome were right in the mainstream of Kentucky basketball thinking.

That happened in 1972, and UK promptly lost 21 games in its next two seasons, more that Rupp lost in his last four seasons combined.  That is eerily reminiscent of today, when we find Billy Gillispie struggling much as Joe Hall did in his first couple of years.  Of course, Hall famously came back in his third year and got all the way to the championship game, losing to UCLA in what would be John Wooden's final hurrah as coach of the UCLA Bruins.

I don't know if Gillispie will get to the final game next year, although if everything breaks his way, he just might.  But what is weighing him, and even the team down a bit right now is the soft bigotry of high expectations.  "What?" you say, "I thought the quote was '... soft bigotry of low expectations.'"  It was, and I have paraphrased it for my own purposes, primarily to illustrate that expectations, while a critical part of the fan experience, can create a fantasy world in which people live in an eternal state of frustration, even anger and outright bigotry.  I'm not talking about racial bigotry here, but the more subtle and insidious kind -- the kind that says if you don't buy in to the conventional wisdom about Kentucky's history, you aren't a fan, or you are some kind of fool to be ostracized or shouted down.  What we fail to realize is the destructive potential of ignoring reality of the now and the evidence of our eyes, and living in the siren's song of past glory.

Kentucky fans have always struggled to manage expectations.  Back in "the day," we used to argue whether or not Coach Hall should have been fired for losing to Alabama, or Vanderbilt.  Trust me, it was very similar then to what it is now.  The big difference was, our opinions were pretty much limited to the people we knew -- that is, unless we happened to be a TV, radio or newspaper sports journalist.  Of course, you never got that kind of vitriol from them -- they valued their job too much to throw it all away by expressing their opinion without regard for the damage it might do.

Not so today.  Today, our opinions may be read by millions of people on the Internet, or seen on YouTube like the famous Katman2000 video repeating "Tubby sucks" over and over again in a sing-song fashion.  We need have no fear of losing our job, or even losing credibility -- most of us hide behind a wall of anonymity that is an Internet tradition, but also responsible for emboldening people to say things that they might not say in front of, for example, the coach himself or the university president.  Its easy to imagine someone doing that with a roomful of friends, but back in "the day," seeing something like Katman2000's video broadcast to millions was unthinkable.  What a difference three decades makes.

The thing is, expectations were no lower way back then than they are now, but the level of exposure of the consequences was infinitely less.  The soft bigotry of high expectations has been a Kentucky trademark since as long as I have been in the Commonwealth, and I assume, much longer than that.  What do I mean by "soft bigotry?"  Just what the word means -- stubborn and complete intolerance for a creed, belief or opinion that differs from one's own.  It doesn't mean racism, necessarily, although that is surely a subset.  It can be equally applied to those who believe in a coach, or don't believe in a coach, or player, or ... whatever, to the complete exclusion and rejection of the opinions of others who might not agree, or in direct contradiction of the facts.

Mostly, it is our expectations of near-perfection that generate these hard and intolerant opinions, and it is the intolerance for others holding contrary opinions that leads to much of the strife we have seen before, and are beginning to see now.  Instead of discussing the team with each other, fans simply talk at each other, not really caring what opinion is expressed if it differs from their rigid holding and only stopping to agree with those who hold a similar position, creating a closed, endless feedback loop. 

Of course, this sort of behavior is by no means limited to UK fans.  Fans of other teams, both amateur and professional, do exactly the same thing.  It is the size and loyalty of Kentucky's fans that tend to make the Big Blue Nation look a little less sane than others.  In reality, it just boils down to exposure -- and numbers.

Many will tell you that high expectations are what allows the fans to hold the Coach and Athletic Director accountable for the success of the team, and that is certainly true.  But it is one thing to insist on good basketball, but quite another to let oneself get carried away on a perception of lost athletic glory and past success.  The former will listen to reason -- the latter cannot, for that person has abandoned reality for an ideal of their own choosing, one that almost never reflects present reality.

So should we lower our expectations?  By no means.  High expectations are part of what makes UK fans, or for that matter, any other fan base great.  But neither should we let our expectations, and thus our passions, rule us, or crowd out our reason.  Never should we let our disappointment, when those expectations don't become reality, provide the motivation to disrespect our fellow fans who hold different opinions, or engage in behavior that is designed to destroy or run down the object of our frustration.  That way leads to bigotry, intolerance, vindictiveness, and strife.

In the end, controlling our passion is the biggest key to avoiding sports bigotry and its destructive effects.  A great fanbase cannot exist in a climate of desperation, invective, ad hominem and midless anger toward the easist target out there.  And we all know who that is.

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