In the longer-then-I'd-like-to-admit, not-so-distinguished annals of my Kentucky Wildcat "fandom" (which covers roughly 35 years), there has never been an opposing school I so thoroughly and vehemently root against as much as the Tennessee Volunteers. My dislike for all things orange even pre-dates my disapproval of the Louisville Cardinals, or any other UK rival for that matter; be it the Tar Heels, Blue Devils, Gators, Jayhawks, Bruins, or Hoosiers.
The reason for my resolute commitment to Bronx cheer Tennessee whenever confronted with their vile presence, can easily be traced back to the late 1970's and early 1980's when UT dared to better my beloved 'Cats much too often for my delicate nature. After all, isn't that what we as fans use as a yardstick with which to choose the enemy? We don't hate Winthrop or Coppin State, no, we with all our considerable collective might, root against the teams that experience the most success against UK, not the teams that serve as the nail to Kentucky's Big Blue hammer.
And folks, Tennessee's 66 all-time victories over Kentucky, absolutely defines "success against UK." For no other college basketball program can claim anywhere near 66 wins against the 'Cats (in fact, Vanderbilt has the next most "W's" against Kentucky with 44, to go along with 134 losses). Get this, between January of 1963 and February of 1993, Tennessee beat Kentucky 29 times, while the 'Cats beat UT 34 times -- A little too close for comfort by about 20 Big Orange wins in my book.
It's not only the number of victories the Vols have amassed against UK that has lit the flame of hostility I feel for Tennessee, more-so, it's the fact that the bad guys wearing county lockup gear have come out on top against some of the most iconic Kentucky teams of all-time.
Take for example -- The 1966 Rupp's Runts squad, a team that lost in the national title game, but somehow Tennessee beat the 'Cats that year down in Knoxville: UK was ranked No. 1 in the nation, UT, unranked ... Even the Kevin Grevey-led 1975 runner-up 'Cats lost to UT in Knoxville when Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King combined for 53 points in their 103-98 win over Kentucky ... Fast-forward to 1984, and the Final Four-bound Twin Tower edition of the 'Cats lost to the Vols 63-58 ... But, most egregious of all the Tennessee victories I have witnessed was the abomination that was a 107-85 Tennessee "win" over the "Unforgettables" in '92. Didn't matter that Jamal Mashburn scored 28 points, or that Travis Ford played brilliantly, scoring 22 points on 6 of 10 three-point shooting, while handing out four assists. No, those pesky performances had no bearing on the outcome. Rather, 41 UK fouls (to UT's 26), which led to 59 Tennessee free throws (versus UK's 33 free throws), are the (zebra) stats which ultimately decided the "victor" on that night ... Finally, last year's mostly-beloved addition of the 'Cats, as good as they were, lost to Tennessee in Knoxville by a count of 74-65.
Quick math tells us the Vols have beaten five of the most beloved UK teams of all time, five times. To me, that's unacceptable, and should result in the ruination of the Big Orange program ( ... aah, the once wistful wish of a young man reeling from another long-ago loss to the Vols, now about to become reality. Sometimes dreams do come true ... Cinderella was right after all).
I do, though, take small comfort in the fact the Tennessee has never beaten a UK title team, including Adolph Rupp's 1946 NIT Championship squad. So take that, Vols!
When you add up all of the bad memories, though, then compound the issue with the knowledge that currently the Vols are led by as unlikeable a regime as any in UT history ... actually, I might be so bold as to say, Bruce Pearl far surpasses any former Volunteer thorn-in-UK's side, by a wide margin. He's so unlikeable, Barney the Dinosaur, who loves everyone, would turn tail and run for cover at the mere mention of Pearl's pathetic name (now known as M.U.D). It's just too much; this marriage of Tennessee and Pearl. Ones sensibilities are doubly offended.
But, going a long way as an aid in alleviating the overwhelming unpleasantness of UT's increasingly dastardly existence, would be a Wildcat victory on Sunday afternoon, on the road, in what could be Pearl's (finally) final stride down the Thompson-Boling sideline. Think about it; It could be the last UT home game that Pearl takes off his jacket, and pretends to coach. It could be the encore home performance, as Pearl stomps his foot (which in a non-game environment can be found in his mouth), and yells pseudo-instructions to his charges. It would be the equivalent of the "Nixon goodbye wave" enthusiastically executed on the top step of the (formerly) Presidential helicopter.
If Kentucky could only somehow break the streak of nasty, unnecessary road defeats, in Knoxville, in Pearl's final game ... oh, my Kingdom (for what it's worth) to experience such profound euphoria. Make no mistake, though, this Tennessee squad is talented, and although they have failed to protect their home hardwood seven times this year, those with "Kentucky" majestically marked across their chests have yet to enter the building.
So a battle it will be, make no mistake 'Cat fans, but if a Claus Von Bulow-ish reversal of (road) fortune happened to occur for the boys in blue on Sunday, resulting in a super model-stunning Wildcat victory, the UK road losses to Ole Miss, Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Vanderbilt, and Florida, would be erased from the memory bank of at least one 'Cat fan. Permanently.
That's how much I want the 'Cats to beat Tennessee. I want Kentucky to beat 'em for Joe Hall, Kevin Grevey,Sam Bowie, Kyle Macy, Melvin Turpin, Louie Dampier, Jamal Mashburn, and all the "Unforgettables." I want Kentucky to beat UT for all the great Wildcat teams and players that have come through Lexington, only to fall prey to the dark cosmic forces who wear orange. But mostly I want this Kentucky team to beat Tennessee because, quite frankly, I think it could propel the current crop of 'Cats to surprisingly great things.
And a dash of "great" is never a bad thing in the mad month of March.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!