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Why We Hate the Cards

 

pitino

Politicians lie.

OK, that was obvious as Kim Jung Un at a screening of The Interview.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, pathological prevaricating is not part of the DNA of the genus politicus.  Such as with most human fabrication, political lies mostly involve self-preservation (“No, I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky”) or social courtesy (“No, you don’t look fat in that outfit, Michelle”).

My most embarrassing dishonesty involved both flavors of fibbing: pretending for over a decade to root for the Louisville Cardinals basketball team.

Of course, I was simply playing my part in a decades-long passion play.  Ever since Governor John Y. Brown, Jr. wore that ridiculous half-red, half-blue blazer to the original “Dream Game” matchup in the 1983 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky politicians have tried to posit a kind of moral equivalency between the state’s top two basketball squads.

Current Governor Steve Beshear thankfully broke that tradition by proclaiming his full allegiance to his Big Blue alma mater.  But even those who’ve followed in his footsteps still proclaim that Louisville is their second favorite team.  Cue the cliché: “I root for the Cardinals in every game but one a year.”

Horse hockey.

Like most of the political class, I might have publicly cheered for the Cardinal Five; but deep down in my soul, I was cursing the Dirty Birds.  Only once in my memory can I remember ever sincerely supporting Big Red, and that was in their 2013 Big Dance rumble with the Satanic Duke Blue Devils — and only after Kevin Ware broke his leg.

Indeed, I have really, really tried to like the Cardinals.  I understand both as a matter of civic pride, as well as an engine for economic growth and development, that it’s a good thing for the state to boast two elite athletic programs.  Some of my best friends are Louisvillians.  I love the city, the restaurants…OK, now I’m sounding like I’m relapsing out of political recovery…but while I earnestly and genuinely adore Louisville, I can’t stand their hometown university’s basketball team.

And I am far from the exception.  One of the most fascinating phenomena I experienced when I first started to travel the state in my former life was that the farther away I’d venture from Lexington, the more passionate devotion I’d find to the Wildcats, and the more acidic animosity I’d witness against the Cardinals.

Why the hate?

In an intense Commonwealth culture driven by resentment against out-of-state elites — we despise outsider intervention so much that we joined the Confederate cause after the Civil War was over — why is our house so divided over a sport that gives us so many bragging rights?  Why can’t we embrace a second Kentucky team, especially in those rare years in which ours finds itself in the middle of a Robert Morris meltdown?

For many of us, our unshakeable contempt for Little Brother Louisville is completely irrational.  But our inability to Let It Go stems from several deeply-rooted sociological, political, psychological, and even spiritual factors:

Big City Blues

It’s a tale as old as time — the Beauty of the countryside battling the Beast of the big city.  Whether it’s the Big Apple versus Upstate, the Windy City against the Downstate, or Philly fighting the Keystone heartland, most American states feature bitter internecine battles between their urban centers and the more rural areas that surround them.  As chronicled by former Herald-Leader columnist Bill Bishop in his brilliant 2008 The Big Sort, these rivalries have become more pronounced in recent years, as people of like cultural values, political proclivities, and economic sensibilities have relocated to live together in their own discrete communities, exacerbating our nation’s societal separation with a literal physical separation.  Just take a gander at the new congressional district red-blue map to witness how pronounced the rural/urban divide has become in the political sphere.

As a result, some Kentuckians simply don’t consider Louisville to be a legitimate part of social or cultural Kentucky — just another big Midwestern city that only embraces its southernness on the first Saturday in May.  It’s no wonder that we’ve never elected a Governor born in Louisville (and why pre-merger Jefferson County native Lawrence Wetherby went to such lengths to claim Middletown as his home when he was elected Governor in 1950).  Indeed, to much of the Big Blue Nation, the Cardinals are the outsider elite, interlopers falsely claiming the mantle of the Bluegrass State as their own. UK is the state team — the Cards are merely pretending.

A Matter of Faith

As I’ve preached on several occasions in these virtual pages, there are millions of Kentuckians who share a near-religious devotion to our cager Cats. Our shaky bonds of community become deeply intertwined and even resilient during March Madness, when we live or die with the exploits of our team. Even for the majority of us who never stepped foot in a university classroom, the Wildcats are as much a part of our souls and identities as our own extended families.  Even in difficult hours when our state lags the country in meaningful quality-of-life criteria, when we become frustrated by our lot in life or our political leadership, we can still boast THE GREATEST TRADITION IN THE HISTORY OF COLLEGE BASKETBALL.

So when Denny Crum dared to inject a rival superpower into the in-state mix and started to amass wins and gather championships, the Big Blue Nation took intense offense.  Sure, UCLA owns more NCAA titles, and maybe if we had a couple of bad years, Kansas might temporarily pass us on the overall victory meter. But it would be unfathomable — unconscionable even — if our I-64 rival would come anywhere close to approaching our historical hegemony.  UK’s national supremacy is sacrosanct; so we must be especially vigilant to root against any in-state team that undermines our inviolable status.

“Traitor Rick”

This might unleash an avalanche of invective — and I’m hopeful that John Calipari erases the following sentiment over the next few years — but Rick Pitino is undeniably history’s most important and consequential University of Kentucky Wildcat coach and not named Adolph.  Beyond his 1996 title and the 1998 championship that Tubby Smith won with the team he recruited, Pitino’s signature accomplishment was rescuing the program’s reputation — and indeed, the Big Blue Nation’s self-image — which had plunged to unimaginable depths during the Eddie Sutton scandal and probation years.

Yet, even when he was winning, it always seemed as if he had one foot out the door, his head askance toward greener pastures.  How could Rick not understand, as Cal continually testifies, that he owned the greatest job in sport?  His indifference infuriated a population already suffering from an inferiority complex toward the elite Eastern Establishment.  And then, when some of us gave him the benefit of the doubt that he and his family would be happier in their northeast homeland, he comes back…to Louisville?  Outrageous!

Many of us have mellowed on Rick as personal and professional struggles brought out a hidden humility — and as most of us assume that Pitino must realize by now that he did blow it by leaving UK.  But the scars have not healed sufficiently for us to root too hard for any team that he captains.

The Internet Tubes

Much of my early distaste of Cardinal basketball was due to my close, longtime friendship with a mild-mannered Cincinnati pediatrician named Scott Steinberg. Without any hyperbole, I can attest that Scott is one of the kindest, most compassionate human beings on the planet.  But come game time, he is an unbearable Cardinal enthusiast and Cat hater. And I had the excruciating, forever-searing experience of enduring that horrific 1984 Final Four UK/Georgetown tragedy at Scott’s Louisville family home.  How can I cheer on the Cards when I know that victory would be followed by more of Scott’s taunting and teasing?

Every Cat fan has a Scott in their lives. But with the Internet, we now have instant access to thousands of Scotts, each sharing their anti-Wildcat bile in real time.  While some had hoped that social media would bring us closer together as a nation, we’ve discovered that more often than not, the Web is more a repository for anger, resentment and insult.

Now, of course, the acrimony is not one-way — Scott would certainly argue that he must endure an abrasive Jonathan — and indeed, our beloved KSR may have perfected, if not invented, the new online UK/UL paradigm.  But whatever the source, as my Twitter feed continues to be flooded by anti-Wildcat and anti-Calipari slurs from Louisville fans, it becomes harder and harder for me ever to find solace in a Cardinal victory.

Race

Before you explode into anti-liberal screed-ing, I’m not suggesting that UK fans are racist.  But it is undeniable that some of the historical roots of the UK/UL rivalry can be found in our centuries-long struggle with skin color.  We can debate the societal context, but the fact that Adolph Rupp’s teams were all-white until the very end made a strong impression on many African-Americans who grew up in Louisville.  And despite UK’s complete 180 in recent decades — with an African-American coach, a series of star-studded mostly-black teams, and a fandom that embraces their hip-hop sentimentality — there are still some families who would never send their kid to UK.  (Just like many Jews will still never buy a Mercedes.)

Fortunately, in an era where Rick Pitino can joke that he “played four white guys and an Egyptian” to avoid a blowout win, overt racism no longer rears its ugly head on the court or in the stands.  But beneath the surface, the scars of old continue to inform animosity.  And it might take a a few more years of Calipari’s extraordinary mentorship of young black ballers to bring these sentiments to full closure.

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Tomorrow afternoon, I will be in the belly of the Yum Beast — wearing blue and my KSR hat, of course — tweeting out smart-ass bon mots about The Game.  If you want to follow or tweet back at me, you can find me at @RecoveringPol.

Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.

16 Comments for Why We Hate the Cards



  1. plumloopy
    12:08 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

    I’m a Cat fan and I don’t hate the Cards. They’re a rival and I’d be fine beating them in perpetuity, but I find the vitriolic hatred that gets reported here and that KSR stokes rather embarrassing.

    I don’t hate Pitino certainly, he resurrected UK in a way that probably couldn’t have happened with any other coach. That he went 14-14 in the first year of suspension with the players he had was a miracle. That might have been the most impressive coaching in UK’s history. He has some personal issues but many powerful people do.

    Anyway, that’s my piece. I hope we beat them by 30, but I don’t hate them. Shoot, I even root for them sometimes if they bring a little extra attention to the commonwealth (but not usually).



  2. cats paw
    12:12 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

    Good read, Mr Miller



  3. gottodoit
    12:25 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

    “But contrary to conventional wisdom, pathological prevaricating is not part of the DNA of the genus politicus.

    Such as with most human fabrication, political lies mostly involve self-preservation (“No, I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky”) or social courtesy (“No, you don’t look fat in that outfit, Michelle”).”

    Bush: “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” And, “[Saddam Hussein is] a threat because he is dealing with al Qaeda.”

    There you go Miller. That should round it off nicely.



    • Jonathan Miller
      3:30 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

      Believe it or not, but I feel like defending George W. Bush. (Take that you haters!) I do not believe the comment you quote above was a lie. I think he was lied to, but I never saw Bush as an evil mastermind plunging us into war against the intelligence he had been given.



  4. RexRox
    12:33 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

    ‘Hate’ is a strong word, so I won’t say that I hate UofL, but I do have a very healthy dislike for their coach and their fan base. If Pitino had taken the Michigan job, I would have wished him well against any program except Kentucky. I understand that it is a free country and he is free to seek employment with any school in America. It is also my right as an American citizen to root against his teams, even if they are playing Duke.

    I particularly resent the ‘racism’ charge that UK fans must hear from Louisville fans. UofL had their first black basketball player seven seasons prior to Kentucky, so where is the righteousness in that? UK was the second SEC school (along with Alabama) to integrate their basketball team. Vanderbilt was first. Kentucky played in the deep south. This was different than UofL playing primarily in the Midwest in those years.

    I had a Louisville fan try to tell me that the national championships from 1948 thru 1958 were tainted because UK had no black players during that time. Of course, he had no answer when I asked him how many black players UofL had during those years. Segregation was not just a UK problem or a UofL problem; it was an American problem.



    • Jonathan Miller
      3:32 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

      I agree with you, especially the part about the past championships being tainted. I think UK would have had a few more trophies on the mantle had they recruited African-American athletes when Wooden was building his dynasty. We paid the price for the societal racism.



  5. RandyB
    1:34 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

    Whatever political office Jonathon Miller intends to run for next, I think Matt needs to give his opponent equal time to endear himself to Wildcat fans. Politicians go where the votes are. That’s what Miller is doing here. Matt is allowing Miller to do this advance polliticking because they are both Liberal Democrats. I objected to Miller’s last article, which mixed politics and religion, two subjects which should not appear on a sports website. I object to this latest appeal to the rural. de facto “racist”, conservative majority. Miller should stick to contributing to the Uber-Leftist Daily Beast.



    • Jonathan Miller
      3:39 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

      Randy, I completely understand your frustration that at the same time you are barraged by liberal media voices, my byline appears on your favorite(?) sports web site. I also can understand you not believing my protestations that I won’t ever run for political office again — after all, read the first sentence of this essay. But I’m completed baffled by your political analysis. If I were running again, why would I be writing about my steroid use or poker playing? And do you really believe, as you wrote in the comments last week, that me “bragging” about being a Jew would help me politically in Kentucky? And now, I am uber-leftist, but I am building some future campaign by appealing to the rural, “racist”, conservative majority? Or is this comment a satire that went over my head, like apparently my satire last week missed your funny bone?



    • UK Big Board Update
      5:58 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

      Randy, have you a rebuttal?



    • satcheluk
      5:44 pm December 27, 2014 Permalink

      Methinks satire, no. Whining, yes.



  6. Scout23
    3:28 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

    My intense dislike for the Cards is based on an increasingly vitriolic, abusive fan base and the Pitino factor. Jonathan, your assessment of the Rick Factor is spot-on. While here, he never truly behaved as if he enjoyed the city, state, or university. His condescension toward Kentucky was expressed, not only in his “one foot out the door” mindset, but also in his treatment of former players, some of them iconic. For Pitino, only “his players” were important; the program was closed, not welcoming, to those who had come before. Ultimately, Pitino’s UK players feel more loyalty to him rather than UK, especially if they’re not Kentucky boys to begin with. Would Coach K leave Duke and return to UNC to coach? This would be unthinkable. Create some animosity?



  7. real True Blue Cat
    4:36 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

    I strongly disagree with your racism issue. The fact is that UL was all white at the same time and taking heat for being so even though they were an urban school playing in a league with other urban schools. Kentucky started recruiting black players in the early ’60s about the same time as ul but it took a few more years to get them due to these players having to play games against teams in the Deep South. And Kentucky was the school to integrate the SEC in football. To say there is a big difference between the two is either disingenuous or uninformed.



    • Jonathan Miller
      6:12 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

      Again, I’m not arguing that UK was racist. But that it is the perception of a generation of Lousivillians. You can adjudicate it as much as you want — and you may be right — but the sentiment is impossible to ignore



    • real True Blue Cat
      6:28 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

      I am not sure if I agree with that. Of which generation are you referring because the perception is incorrect. I would agree that is the perception of a bunch of louisville fans, they also think that Cal pays off the refs and that the only reason that we out recruit them is because Cal is paying players to come here. So just because that is a perception doesn’t make it right. Not sure why you would stoke that fire. My perception is that BBN is colorblind and loves our players irregardless of color or ethnicity.



    • wallywildcat
      12:26 pm December 27, 2014 Permalink

      The perception is real and alive and kicking. Look around Rupp and count the number of African-American fans…then at the Yum!.

      This may not be true in some of your eyes but as long as racism is alive in this world…it won’t change in KY. Starting with sports.

      Most Cards fans use it as ammo to stoke the fire in UK fans. Who are no doubt THE MOST PASSIONATE fan base on the planet. These Card fans have been told by their grandparents and parents that Rupp was a racist. However, we UK fans know this isn’t true. The man had African-American players on his high school teams. Yet…it’s easier to pour gas on a fire than it is to do some research.



  8. Tomasito
    6:48 pm December 26, 2014 Permalink

    I think you are spot on in saying social media has made this rivalry worse. When I was a kid (I am only 24) growing up in Shelbyville I had to deal with several UofL fans. Most of them were my friends and we would go back and forth with each other the Monday after the game, but social media has made it so crazy people can say stupid things they would never say to someone’s face. And it is all-year round too. It has taken the hate to almost vitriolic levels. I may be alone but the craziness that some people take it too has almost made the rivalry not fun anymore. I almost wish the two schools wouldn’t play anymore.