If you let yourself think about it for too long, then it really starts to get depressing. This has without question, been the Year of the Cardinal in College Athletics. The run that the UL Athletic Department is on right now is, if not unprecedented, certainly unbelievably rare. In the past school year, the Cards have won the Sugar Bowl, made the Title game in both the mens’ and womens’ NCAA basketball Tournament and found a way to rise from the conference realignment grave and join the ACC, leaving behind the scrap heap of what was once the Big East. All the while, doing it led by the arrogant “take no prisoners” approach of their Athletic Director, Tom Jurich, who has showcased that the ends can justify the means when it comes to winning on a big-time college athletics scale. One would think that karma would over take an individual that has used his bullying methods to not only run roughshod on his sporting opponents, but also government officials, media members and generally anyone who dares to question the Sainthood of Tom. With a paranoia that hasn’t been seen since the final days of the Politburo (and a similar hairstyle), Jurich has tried to eliminate all enemies of the Birds, and rather than be punished for his ways, he has been rewarded with as successful a year as one can imagine.
Watching it from the land of Blue can be difficult to stomach. If you are like me, this past week has been a bit more than a Kentucky fan should reasonably be expected to handle. Louisville friend of mine often say to me, “you are just jealous!” and at least for this week, they are right. While I would never want to actually be a Cardinal fan (or have to use the phrase #L1C4 in anything but a mocking tone), this week has been hard not to envy. While we are coming off a national title, seem likely to be the favorite for one next year, have confidence in our football program for the first time in ages, have major renovations coming to Commonwealth Stadium, have a top ten Women’s basketball program and as healthy an overall Athletic Department as we have ever had in Lexington, one cannot help but be take a long, lingering look at what is taking place in the Red part of the state. It would be enough if we just had to simply watch the winning (this UL men’s team is the best in the country and deserves to win the national title), but we have also been forced to accept a fawning over all things Louisville that is more than a sane man should have to bear.
Don’t get me wrong. I was genuinely moved by what I saw last weekend, when after Kevin Ware’s injury, his UL teammates showed real emotion in feeling for their fallen brother and rallied around him in as powerful a way as I can remember in college sports. That moment caused me to not only like Kevin Ware, but hope for success for those players who showcased a level of compassion and vulnerability on a national stage that really was powerful. But what has followed since that moment has been a bit more than I can handle. Through no fault of his own, the Kevin Ware story has gone viral to such a degree that when I go to eat at Qdoba, I wonder if CBS is going to pan to a shot of Ware to see what his emotion will be when I order a naked chicken burrito (“Ok Jim, let’s go out to Rachel Nichols, standing by with Kevin Ware to see whether the recent movements by North Korea are having an effect on his rehab”). I found Kevin Ware not only likeable, but genuinely funny in the days following his injury, especially when he read the Top Ten list on David Letterman. But the never-ending, overwhelming nature of all things Ware, ranging from bits on the Today Show to t-shirts on every street corner can be a bit much. As with everything in today’s media culture, we have taken something genuinely worth praising and beaten the life out of it, until it ceases to have almost any emotion left at all. It isn’t Kevin Ware or Louisville’s fault…they have actually handled the situation well…but it does make for a very long week for a True Blue UK fan.
And speaking of “True Blue” UK fans, a change has occurred throughout parts of the state that has also been troubling. Due in part to the Ware injury, and in part to some bizarre notion of “state pride”, many UK fans are seeing folks trying to guilt us into supporting the Cardinals for a title win. This reached its crescendo today when Lexington Mayor Jim Gray suggested UK fans should “get behind the Cardinal Red on Monday.”
Go Cards! Come on, Big Blue Nation … let’s get behind the Cardinal Red on Monday!
— Jim Gray (@JimGrayLexKY) April 7, 2013
Now maybe I missed something, but I don’t exactly remember a groundswell of support from Card Nation last year as UK went for a Championship. Beyond Rick Pitino’s supposed “bring the title back to Kentucky” statement to Calipari at the end of the semi-final (which I have a hard time believing was either (a) said or (b) if said, heartfelt), I dont recall much movement from the UL faithful to “get behind the Wildcat Blue.” In fact, I recall the opposite…a city full of newly-found Jayhawk supporters hoping to keep “that dirty, cheating Calipari and his one and done nomads” (actually they didn’t use the word nomad because that would have required too great a vocabulary) from realizing a dream. And you know what? That didn’t bother me one bit. WE ARE RIVALS! WE ARE SUPPOSED TO ROOT AGAINST EACH OTHER! Duke and North Carolina don’t pull for each other….neither do Michigan and Ohio State…Alabama and Auburn or the Yankees and Red Sox. We engage in a friendly (at least most of the time) rivalry that sees you hoping your team wins, while the other correspondingly loses. UL fans saying “Gardner Webb” and “Robert Morris”, while UK fans respond with “Morehead State”, is what it is all about. Yes, in serious moments, such as during the Ware injury, we rally together to realize something bigger than a game and show our common humanity. That is why so many Kentucky fans (this one included) were happy for the players when they won the Duke game after such a difficult moment. But when the dust settles, we are still rivals, part of which assumes a level of friendly dislike.
I have read many supposed “calmer, more rational” people than me who have written that we should be for Louisville because of “Kentucky pride.” But that misses the point. I love the state of Kentucky, and the city of Louisville where I reside in particular, and nothing that happens Monday night will have an effect on either of those feelings. Instead, I am not rooting for the Louisville basketball team…a group of fine kids who I would help in any way I could in life…but who I still hope lose on Monday. It is nothing personal. I have great friends who bleed Cardinal Red, have dated women whose faults include throwing up the “L” and have work colleagues who have helped my career, even though their fanhood is so misguided. We can all love the state and the city without hoping each other’s team wins…in fact, I like the rivalry more because of it. A rivalry without rooting against the other team is like a game of badminton at a family reunion…worth passing the time, but not something to look forward to.
With all of that said, I can’t help but not only acknowledge Louisville’s supremacy this year, but also admit to a bit of enviousness. While our men’s basketball program is by no means subservient to the Louisville version, as of today our football and women’s program is (the latter only by postseason success…the regular season has been just as good or better). As much as I hate it, the truth is that is good to be a Cardinal right now. But understanding this reality doesn’t mean I have to like it. I can acknowledge that Rick Pitino is a great coach…one of the best to ever practice the craft…while still also trumpeting the fact that he lies every time he speaks and has a likability quotient with me just slightly higher than Jay Mariotti. I can accept that Tom Jurich may be the best Athletic Director in the country, while also repeating that “success does not a tremendous person make”, and pointing out his repeated attempts to bully and control a generally willing “yes daddy may I have another” Louisville media base. And I can be happy for my great UL friends (from Vanetti to Meiners, to Perrin Johnson to the old 1570 group to Handsome Jimmy to Mengus 22 to Rob and Bacon to Slapnuts to Jim Andrews to Miller to the dudes in the infamous Crown Royal picture who I don’t know but have given me such joy over the years to that one girl who used to…oh well, nevermind) while also laughing at their ridiculous hats, line beards, tattoos, and brilliant combination of Catholic private high school education/twitter tough guy personas. I can acknowledge objectively Louisville’s tremendous success without having to (quoting the great former Washington Nationals relief pitcher Joey Eischen) “suck on it and like it.”
The last couple of weeks must have been what it was like to live in East Berlin during the final years of the Cold War. You know your occupation by the Red Russians/Cardinals is currently overwhelming but you also believe with Ronald Reagan (or in our case the 2013 recruiting class) saying “Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall,” better days are coming. The year of the Cardinal is (thankfully) coming to an end, possibly with two national titles in the next two days. But better days for BBN are coming. We will win it all next year and the future is bright in all the sports, regardless of our rival’s success. Yes, the smug grin of the man above and the gloating of the most famous Italian restaurant hair-plugged customer since Tony Soprano will be not only ubiquitous, but also unfortunately, backed up with earned justification. However better days are to come, and as the great French philosopher Montainge may or may not have once said, “the worst day in Blue greater than the best day in red.” They are still Louisville, we are still Kentucky and we will persevere…no matter how difficult these days currently are.