In a recent bout of homesickness I pulled up the Wikipedia article on US Interstate Highway 64. I wondered if maybe I’d be able to capture the feeling of going home, since there’s no stretch of highway more familiar to me than the 80 miles of I-64 that separate Louisville from Lexington. Frankfort, the state capital, is wedged between these two cities, as is the hospital in Shelbyville where I spent untold hours of my childhood, idly coloring or reading about dinosaurs in the ICU nurses’ station as my dad went on his rounds. And then there are the little clusters of off-ramp towns that are known only by name and exit number, serving as a way of gauging, intuitively, how near I am to home.
These same 80 miles are known to millions of Kentuckians as the territory between the two schools that maintain the most fervent rivalry in college basketball. The rivalry between the Louisville Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats hinges on a single game usually held in early January. The question of what makes a Kentuckian favor one team over the other is often impossible to answer—team partisanship isn’t confined to just alumni and their families, and it isn’t necessarily civic in nature, as you see plenty of Cardinals flags flying from front porches in Lexington and vanity Wildcat license plates at red lights in Louisville. But in some inexplicable way, a fan is born onto one side or the other as surely as one is born a Kentuckian.
Change comes to Kentucky
The world of NCAA basketball has changed substantially since the confetti came down on an all-but-inevitable UNC championship over Michigan State last April, but no off-season shake-up has fostered greater anticipation than the University of Kentucky’s hiring of John Calipari as the new Wildcat head coach. Calipari joined the top tier of NCAA coaches over his nine years at the helm of always good, often stellar Memphis Tiger squads that revitalized the city’s interest in the team. He now replaces a UK coach, Billy Gillispie, who drove the most storied college basketball program in the nation into three years of embarrassment, alienating its financial boosters and rabid fan base by somehow cobbling players of immense talent into teams that were merely decent. No one in NCAA basketball has the weight of as much expectation on his shoulders as Calipari does right now.
If there was one off-season narrative that brought more drama to the world of NCAA basketball than UK’s kicking Gillispie to the curb, it was the all-too-public revelation and denouement of Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s lurid extra-marital affair. After Louisville’s demoralizing loss in the quarterfinals of last year’s NCAA tournament, Pitino’s summer of public humiliation seemed to many Cardinals fans a harbinger of a drama-laden (and subsequently frustrating and mediocre) 2009-10 season. The fact that the Cardinals roster is still loaded with talented players vanished amid worries that Pitino’s personal troubles would somehow prevent him from organizing them into an effective team. Kentucky’s hiring of Calipari, noted for his dribble-drive offense that exploits the talent of the individual player as a means of ripping through the opposing team’s cohesion, turned this uneasiness into mortal fear in the hearts of Cardinals fans.
Not a tough act to follow
Few outside of Lexington and Memphis would claim that John Calipari is a great basketball coach, at least insofar as one takes the function of a coach to be making good players into better players and effectively formulating team strategy from one opponent to the next. Just two seasons ago his foolhardy failure to help his 2007-08 Memphis team improve at the free-throw line ultimately cost them the NCAA championship game against a less talented but better developed Kansas team. Though the list of Wildcat Nation’s grievances against former UK coach Billy Gillispie’s tenure is long, but inability to develop his players’ skills and poor strategizing were never primary among them. The most common complaints were that he was a poor recruiter (dubious) and that he refused to kowtow to the whims of the program’s financial boosters (accurate). Calipari’s reputation pre-emptively addresses both these complaints—he is already known to be a fearsome recruiter of talented players, and his emergence as a public personality in the revitalization of Memphis’ program shows he has no qualms about playing the P.R. game.
Calipari himself seems to harbor no delusions about where his strengths as a head coach lie: at the first press conference he held in front of a UK banner, he explained his three keys to building a successful squad, repeating the phrase “have good players” three times in a row. And it’s not all talk—he managed to bring the heralded freshman John Wall, who initially committed to play for Memphis, along with him to Lexington, where the Wildcat fans have greeted Wall with rapture. But it’s Calipari’s public relations savvy that will help him to avoid Gillispie’s greatest mistake, which was alienating the Wildcat fans—some of whom have deep pockets—with his failure to grasp, or refusal to honor, the pathological extent of college basketball fandom in the Bluegrass State.
“In Kentucky, you can’t love your grandmother more than basketball. And if you did, she’d tell you you’re stupid,” remarked Van Florence, the 30-year president of the UK booster organization upon coach Calipari’s formal introduction to the screaming UK masses this October. While other teams introduce their new rosters with a few crowd-pleasing dunks or endearingly haphazard dance routines, Lexington’s Rupp Arena had as much macho pageantry as a WWF event, with fog machines billowing over the court floor and freshmen players hoisted into the air on a cherry-picker. The implicit desire to convince the fans that Calipari heralded a new era in Wildcat basketball was exceeded only by the fans’ desire to believe in that promise.
Yet this belief may be foolish. Kentucky will be better this year than they ever were under Gillispie, but I doubt that they’ll win another NCAA championship this year, even with talented squad that freshman Wall and junior Patrick Patterson will spearhead. But it isn’t March Madness that will matter most to these rejuvenated fans. Instead it’s January 2, when the Cardinals will arrive in Rupp Arena for the most important game of the year. At stake is more than a year’s worth of bragging rights. It’s a battle for ownership of those 80 miles on I-64, and for anyone who understands the significance of that stretch of road, taking part in that battle is an indispensable means of locating oneself in the culture of the Bluegrass State.
Since Kentucky isn’t home to any professional sports teams, this annual match-up is the only time of the year (apart from the Derby) that the national sports media turns its eye on the state. And every year, the fans’ zealotry is as much a part of the story as the game itself. In Billy Gillispie’s tenure at UK, all three components suffered—poor leadership begat underdeveloped players, and the demoralized Wildcat fans’ cheering rang hollow. But worst of all, it allowed the Louisville Cardinal fans to cheer a little less fervently. Every year on game day, Louisville’s local paper devotes an entire section to its preview articles. Last year was the first time I can remember that I heard more people poking fun at the overkill than discussing its contents. This year, the seriousness has returned. With Lexington’s pre-emptive beatification of Calipari cast against Louisville’s desire to forget Pitino’s shameful summer, there has been a revival of national interest in this rivalry that distinguishes itself foremost by just how deeply it is felt. The teams are loaded with talent, the narratives are in place, the fans are rabid, and all roads lead to the Bluegrass state.
EVAN CARMOUCHE B’11 misses T-Will.