Posted on Tue, Sep. 11, 2007
Nasty rivalry makes for great theater
SCHOOLS SCRAP ON, OFF THE FIELD
By Mark Story
HERALD-LEADER SPORTS COLUMNIST
This is how you elevate a rivalry to full boil.
In the last four school years, Kentucky and Louisville have had scheduling disputes over when to play football and whether to play volleyball.
At a time when U of L athletics were enjoying unprecedented on-the-field success, a shrewd Kentucky coup knocked Cardinals' broadcasts from their priority status on Louisville radio giant WHAS.
Not once, but twice in the past year, the president of the University of Kentucky made public remarks that were interpreted by the red part of the state as derisive toward U of L sports.
Though he does it with a smile on his face, the Louisville athletic director is quite skilled himself at applying the verbal needle to UK.
And that doesn't even take into account the hard feelings of those who still consider Rick Pitino a turnCat.
Taking the temperature of our state's premier rivalry on the week of the most anticipated Kentucky-Louisville football meeting in the modern series, I'd say the relationship between the sports programs at UK and U of L has never been testier.
UK President Lee Todd says he has never seen the feelings of sports rivalry between UK and U of L stronger than they are now.
"It is highly competitive right now, it really is," Todd said Saturday. "We have 25,000 alumni living in Jefferson County. I think that breeds a lot of the competition. They probably hear it (from the U of L fans) every single day."
Old School Kentucky fans have long been reluctant to acknowledge Louisville as UK's main rival. Presumably, that's because to acknowledge a rival is to tacitly admit equality.
"I've never thought (UK-U of L) has gotten to the point of a Michigan-Ohio State or an Auburn-Alabama," says Oscar Combs, who founded the UK sports publication The Cats' Pause in the 1970s.
Other Kentucky sports figures are less reluctant to acknowledge the current reality.
"There is extreme passion on both sides from the fans," Kentucky football coach Rich Brooks said. "Passion bordering on hatred. That means it's a pretty good rivalry. I know since I've been here, you hear about (the Kentucky-Louisville game) year-round."
U of L backers say the UK president has done much to gin up bad blood between the fans of our state's two main sports programs.
Last fall, at a UK Alumni gathering in Louisville, Todd predicted that the Kentucky-Louisville basketball game might be "somewhat competitive" since U of L had "almost lost to Georgetown" College in an exhibition. (In that case, the UK basketball team walked Todd's talk.)
This followed the UK president's remarks last summer at a Kentucky Football Kickoff Luncheon that the Louisville football program was "overmarketed and underperforming." (The Kentucky football team didn't exactly back that one up.)
A year later, that remark still stings in The Ville, where people are justifiably proud of a football program that has been ranked in the nation's Top 10 at the end of the season twice in the past three years.
"Look at who said it," Louisville AD Tom Jurich said of Todd's remark. "Consider the source."
Todd says now that "I was speaking to a football crowd and you get in front of fans in the beginning of a season and you try to say things to charge them up. I certainly have a lot of respect for the athletic program they have built."
For his part, Jurich is pretty good at giving it back to UK.
In the prior three school years, Louisville has sent a men's basketball team to the Final Four, its football team has won a BCS bowl, and its baseball team has made the College World Series.
U of L media spinners are adept at pointing out that Louisville has achieved all this while spending dramatically less on athletics than UK -- roughly $62 million for Kentucky last year vs. some $41 million for Louisville.
Last year, Jurich told The Cincinnati Post that "if money won championships, Kentucky would win them all."
That's a zinger.
Raising the temperature on the rivalry between the schools has been a pair of scheduling disputes.
A disagreement over when to play volleyball in 2006 led to Kentucky and Louisville not playing each other for the first time since 1980-81. Essentially, the two sides couldn't agree on a date.
UK insisted it would not play a rivalry game once Southeastern Conference play began. Louisville suggested more than 33 potential playing dates and regarded Kentucky's lack of flexibility as an insult.
"They're only willing to schedule us when it is absolutely perfect for them," U of L Senior Associate Athletics Director Julie Hermann said last June. "If it's not totally on their terms, they're not willing to play us. No other institution in the country treats us like that."
Jurich said in an interview this past June that "we were more upset about the volleyball situation than Todd's remarks."
This season, for the second straight year, Kentucky and Louisville are not playing volleyball. This time, UK Coach Craig Skinner said the schools could not agree on a site.
Skinner said UK maintains that the series should re-start in Lexington, since the last time the two played was in Louisville. U of L says UK skipped its year for a home game, so any renewal should start in Louisville.
Then there is the granddaddy of the recent Kentucky-Louisville disputes, over when to play football. The Cards wanted to continue the game as the traditional season opener. Kentucky agitated for playing later.
In this case the two actually compromised, with U of L getting the game as the opener when it is in Louisville and Kentucky having it later on the years in Lexington.
When they play Saturday night, it will be the third game for both teams.
"From our standpoint, they probably helped us," Jurich said. "We've got a new coach. We didn't see that coming. So we've got a new coach in place and they've given us a chance to get a couple of games under our belt."
That's a zinger.
Right now, the competition between UK and U of L is chippier and zestier than its ever been.
As theater, isn't it great?