I openly admit to being overly harsh at times on the Big Blue Nation. Unrealistic, even. Maybe it's that I expect more from my brethren, the way an older brother always does to his younger siblings. Pretension, too? Sure, I'd buy that.
But without excusing the miserable season we are witnessing the end of, it seems that a decade of wild excess and gift has left the Kentucky fanbase in an untenable position.
One of my favorite thinkers is a man named Andrew Bacevich. A retired colonel and military historian, Bacevich has emerged of late as a strong critic of the way in which America has been conducting itself. Far from a left-wing screed, his most recent work, The Limits of Power, takes the United States to task for an epoch of unfettered greed and blindness to her own limits. A self-described moderate Republican, Bacevich has as much criticism of a populace unwilling to live within its means as he does for any politician.
In one sentence, he sums up his critique, and it's something I've been kicking around over the last few days as the inevitable demise of this Kentucky basketball season has progressed. Critiquing the Bush Administration's Iraq War postwar plan of limited boots on the ground, Bacevich writes:
A generation of profligacy had produced strategic insolvency. The administration had counted on the qualitative superiority of U.S. forces compensating for their limited numbers. The enemy had not cooperated.
I am in no way equating the game of basketball, even with its passions within the Big Blue Nation, with war, nation-building or anything as serious as all that. I am merely using his theme as a guide for looking at the collective id of our beloved Kentucky program. But Bacevich's point is an interesting one when applied to the UK sphere.
In 1993, the UK fanbase was treated to a well-oiled machine in the Mashburn-led Kentucky squad that fell to Michigan in the Final Four. We celebrated our return to the sport's final weekend with fervor and a little extra appreciation for having been just two years prior banned from even competing for it. We were chastened and giddy at our good fortune.
But whether from an excess of pride or a lack of humility, things changed rather quickly. After a young team's surprise but not unthinkable second-round exit at the hands of a veteran Marquette team in 1994, from 1995-1999 the UK program, and its fans, were treated to an historic run of success, even by Kentucky's blue blooded standards. Well documented, this five years saw five elite eight finishes, three Final Fours and two national championships, under a pair of elite coaches. After a few years rebuilding and retooling, the 2003-05 teams again established the Kentucky brand as a blue chipper. In 10 seasons, Kentucky reached the Elite Eight 7 times and was awarded a #1 or #2 seed 7 times as well.
I don't mean to suggest that we didn't deserve such a run, nor that we shouldn't have reveled in it. We did, and we certainly did. Rather, what we took from the era of Kentucky dominance was the wrong lesson. Instead of seeing it as a rare and cherished decade of success, we took it as a birthright, a given.
As a consequence, we have come to treat the program much as the populace has come to treat the United States. Without attending to her needs, and focused on intercine battles, we have collectively (and with certainly many individual exceptinos) shirked our duties to nation and friend alike, preferring to bicker and spend without care as if there were no limits to anything, to live beyond our means, to fritter away goodwill and bounty while accepting without question failing and even absent leadership.
I was talking about Kentucky basketball, could you tell?
In many ways, we are reaping now what we have sown for years. Tubby Smith is not to blame for the current state of the program any more than Rick Pitino or Billy Gillispie. Ramon Harris and Sheray Thomas are not to blame. Rather, we, the true stewards of the HMS Kentucky, have been asleep at the wheel. When Tubby Smith's precocious freshmen nearly reached the Final Four in 2005, we didn't enjoy it. We thought it a fluke, and immediately we set about tearing down the individual pillars of that success; first by never truly forgiving Randolph Morris' dalliance with the NBA and then by deciding that Rajon Rondo was some sort of boil to be removed.
Smith didn't forget how to coach, he stopped enjoying it. And it wasn't because of his players, it was because it was never good enough. When was the last time the Kentucky players looked like they were playing freely and without heavy shoulders? When was the last time the team appeared to be trying to win instead of trying not to lose? Four years? Five? Probably for moments since, but it certainly seems like years.
I can hear the responses already. That fans are not to blame for performance, that talent begets winning and that, at Kentucky, the simple act of winning is not enough. Opinions are free, and plenty.
And I will agree that there is nothing wrong with expecting success at the highest levels. It's called ambition and we laud it in this country. But there is something wrong with losing sight of what it is you were once rooting for. The plucky Kentucky kid leaving it all on the floor. The raw talent harnessing his skills for one glorious game. The sound of "My Old Kentucky Home" echoing off the Rupp Arena walls, producing tears in a battle hardened senior. The pleasure of watching a game played with joy and finesse.
We would be wise, and happier, to remember with more than a passing thought why it is we love this program, and this game. Otherwise, we stand to lose it amidst the full-throated screech of our collective protests. Let's refocus, regroup and learn to appreciate what we have come to almost hate for its hold on us.
As Reinhold Niehbuhr once wrote:
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love."