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'Cats vs. Cards: A Rivalry on the Verge of Combustion

In many ways I'm a typical Kentucky fan (if there is such a thing): I don't like North Carolina, Tennessee, Duke, Florida, Arkansas (now that John Pelphrey is no longer roaming the sidelines), UCLA, and Kansas among others. But my dislike for those college basketball teams pales in comparison to my faithful, fully committed dislike of Louisville. For me, it's always been that way. No, nothing happened years ago to make me dislike the Cards, rather, despising all things UofL is intertwined throughout my blue tinted DNA.

I've lived through the madness of UK being forced to schedule UofL in basketball -- I was against that nonsense back in 1983 when Bluegrass state lawmakers, unable to find anything worthwhile to do, took it upon themselves to threaten Kentucky with all manner of gloom and doom, essentially forcing then-UK athletic director Cliff Hagan to add the Cards to the basketball schedule (kind of like a parent making the older sibling play with the baby). I'm still against the two teams playing. The contest is in my view, a no-win situation for Kentucky, but on the bright side it has been rather enjoyable to watch the 'Cats' mini-domination of the series, currently standing at 19-11 (since the renewal), and admittedly I now look forward to the game every year.

The red hot rivalry that has developed over the years, while not always a national story, has consistently been big news within the boundaries of the Commonwealth, and with the hiring of Rick Pitino as Louisville coach in 2001, UK fans were immediately sent into a frenzy, amping up the rivalry to levels never before seen. The vitriol on both sides was palpable, especially on game day, but throughout the year the trash-talking between the two fan bases reached pandemic proportions. Not unlike the outnumbered mob in full throated voice, Louisville fans, far, far fewer in numbers than the UK faithful, still made enough racket to create a legitimately contemptuous back-and-forth between the two rival programs.

Now, adding the wonder of the Internet into the rivalry mix, where anyone with a computer and a single digit is able to convey his/her thoughts at the stroke of a key board, the bad feelings, the feelings of inadequacy, the inferiority complex ... all of it is available for anyone to read and respond to, making for some very contentious message boards and story threads, which in turn has led to an even greater disdain, one fan base for the other.

Then, like a gift from the basketball gods, Kentucky hired John Calipari, a known Rick Pitino adversary, and all hades broke loose. Ain't life grand!

With the hiring of Cal in April 2009, many UK fans, perhaps practicing a bit of projection (aka wishful thinking), howled that Pitino would run for the safety of the Mountain West, tail between legs, away from the mounting threat down I-64. Pitino, after all, could only muster a 4-4 record against the 'Cats prior to Cal's arrival, and this included four UK seasons -- 2005-2006 to 2008-2009 -- that saw the 'Cats struggle home with double-digit loss seasons. The thinking among some UK fans was that Pitino had digressed to the degree that he couldn't even beat mediocre Wildcat teams. What Kentucky fans failed to realize, though, is that Pitino lives for a challenge, and the marriage of Calipari, the master recruiter, and Kentucky, the bluest of college basketball's blue bloods, presented the former UK coach with his Everest; the most potent foe he's faced since his ill-fated (yet "in-riching") attempt to resuscitate the Boston Celtics. A project left incomplete to a maddening degree (at least to Celtic fans).

Maddening to some Kentucky fans is the fact that Louisville has failed to fall off the college basketball map. Pitino has most assuredly responded to the Calipari challenge by recruiting more effectively than he has in some time (although ever matching Cal's three straight No.1 recruiting classes seems a stretch), bringing to Louisville a top-10 recruiting class next season in the form of 6'5" McDonald's All-American shooting guard Wayne Blackshear, 6'7" McDonald's All-American power forward Chane Behanan, and 6'10" 4-star center Zach Price.

Maddening to UofL fans is the fact that the incoming Cardinal recruiting class had the potential to be the best in the nation ... until UofL commitment, top-5 player Marquis Teague, decommitted and cast his lot with the 'Cats. Ouch, RP, ouch. Perhaps trying to stick it to Pitino once again, Calipari called Behanan, the power forward prospect out of Bowling Green via Cincinnati, and offered him a schollie while Behanan was on his way up I-65 to visit Louisville. Now that's good stuff, my friends -- Behanan, as we know, opted to play for the Cards, so chalk that one up as an RP victory, and reason for Card fans to smile; few and far between as they may be.

Not to be outdone on the assistant coach front, Pitino, in response to Cal hiring Nike-connected (and former Card) Kenny Payne as an assistant, hired Nike-connected Tim Fuller (But, alas, proving once again that UofL is not UK, Fuller left Pitino's staff to take a job with Frank Haith at Missouri. Yes, Missouri). But my, Pitino is trying.

Finally, enter stage left, Tony Woods. A 6'10" transfer from Wake Forest who has been attending community college in Louisville in anticipation of suiting up for the Cardinals. Oh how UK fans cast a disapproving eye (and a boisterous voice) toward Pitino and the Cardinals as they welcomed into their fold a player with a background voted most likely to cause one to end up playing for the Lagrange Reformatory all-stars, not a major college basketball team. "Is this what Pitino has stooped to in order to keep up with Cal?" UK fans frantically typed last year. So it should not come as a surprise that Louisville's fans are returning the favor now that Woods has reopened his recruitment and visited Kentucky.

The entire Woods situation has simply deepened an already deepening departure of ways between two fan bases best kept apart. But isn't that how rivalries are supposed to be, especially in-state rivalries, where opposing fans live and work with one another, oftentimes sharing a bed or home. The passion is real, therefore the hatred (in a sporting sense) for the other's colors are real. Think Crips and Bloods, folks, and with two coaches who DESPISE each other, along with two schools who think the other created mad cow disease, don't look for an abatement of the loathing to occur any time soon. Actually, the polar opposite is most likely to happen.

We live in a glorious time, indeed.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!