Last Friday night, John Calipari did what any good Kentuckian would do if given the chance, he went and spoke in Pikeville. While getting UK fans excited and making their mountain hearts flutter, he also had some words about the team and his vision of the program. While most were normal (we are good, we are going to do something special, dont mess with my dog), he also made an interesting comment about our neighbors to the north. In addressing the Dirty Cards, Calipari said fans should “calm down” about Louisville and not worry about the game to the degree that they now do. Calipari made the point that UK already plays other rivals like UNC and Indiana and that he hoped more would be on the way. He then said that in reality Louisville “isnt on my radar” and that he was more concerned about other things.
Now in theory I love this. There is nothing better than a little subtle jab at the Cards to get a rivalry stoked and telling someone that they arent on your radar is a pretty nice way of hanging the banner of irrelevance in the new Louisville arena. However ultimately, as much as I love the thought, Calipari needs to understand that nothing he does will play down Cats’ fans hatred of the Cards. When I was growing up, Louisville was sort of off my radar because I was living in the mountains, where Tennessee was the arch enemy. For me, Louisville was more of a nuisance than a rival and my biggest worries were the games in Thompson-Boling every season. But then I moved North, met actual UL fans and dealt with the inferiority complex/hatred that they have for UK and its fans and beating the dirty Cards became priority number one.
That is the thing about rivalries. Unless you are really part of them, live them, breathe them and make them your own, you dont get why they matter. People outside of Oregon know nothing about the Ducks vs the Beavers, but inside the state, it is the Civil War. Calipari is the Kentucky coach and soon will bleed blue. But he hasnt been to a UK-UL game yet and cant really understand how much it means. A similar thing happens with players who come to UK, know nothing about the Cards and dont realize what the game is all about…but soon thereafter, they understand. I remember Ramel Bradley telling me once, “I didnt know anything about UL when I got here, but after the first game, I knew we had to beat them.” If you dont know what hating UL means, ask Woo, who grew up in Poland, didnt know UL even had a team and now hates them with such ferocity that he has yelled down a UL cheerleader in my presence. It is that big a deal.
I do love the idea of playing down Louisville and acting like they arent on the Cats’ level. And historically, that is true, regardless of what the Cards wish were the case. But today, Louisville-Kentucky matters and the hatred that is part of it, makes it the best rivalry in college basketball, no matter what the folks in North Carolina say. Calipari can do many things in Lexington. He is going to recruit unlike any other, bring excitement to Rupp and win national championships. But as powerful he is and as much sway as he has, he wont make any of us that live in Louisville or the surrounding areas not want to beat the Cards. We didnt like them before he got here and we wont like them when he leaves. Hating the Cards is a habit, and it just cant be kicked.