Rivalries like Kentucky-Louisville make for passion-filled theater

For Kentucky-Louisville, there are practically no undecideds. Not for basketball, football or med schools.
Dec 28, 2013

 

Missouri Coach Norm Stewart took pride in never spending a dime in the state of Kansas. When his Tigers were scheduled to play at Kansas, in a series affectionately known as The Border War, the team stayed in a hotel in Kansas City, Mo., and rode a bus to Lawrence for the game.

Georgetown Coach John Thompson enjoyed his team’s 52-50 victory at Syracuse in 1980 a little too much for fans of the Orangemen. Georgetown snapped Syracuse’s 57-game home winning streak in what was also the last game in Manley Field House. Thompson ruffled Syracuse feathers by declaring in his post-game news conference, “Manley Field House is officially closed.”

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas recalled the locker room scene after his Duke team won at North Carolina in 1985. “There were some of our people crying,” he said. “I was, ‘What is wrong with you people? Why are you crying?’ They said, ‘We haven’t won here in 20 years.’”

That kind of passion, which might seem irrational to outsiders, makes University of Kentucky women’s soccer coach Jon Lipsitz among the many who look forward to Saturday’s Kentucky-Louisville game in Rupp Arena.

“One of the most fun things about athletics is rivalries,” he said recently. “All the passion involved.”

Life creeps in this petty pace, as Shakespeare wrote. Every so often, athletic rivalries elevate us from the routine to the memorable. For example, and most recently, Auburn returned a missed Alabama field goal attempt to win on the game’s final play.

“It’s so exciting,” Lipsitz said of rivalries. “and there’s so much passion.”

Lipsitz knows rivalries. His father, Lou Lipsitz, taught political science at North Carolina. So he had a front-row seat (figuratively speaking) for the UNC-Duke rivalry.

“I think there’s a little more animosity here,” he said of UK-U of L versus UNC-Duke.

UNC-Duke is rooted in basketball and flowers only during basketball season. Plus, it can be ignored even within North Carolina. “A lot of people from eastern North Carolina root for East Carolina,” Lipsitz said. “They don’t like either one of them.

“Here, pretty much you’re blue or red.”

For Kentucky-Louisville, there are practically no undecideds. Not for basketball, football or med schools.

“Even if you attended somewhere else, you’re choosing one,” Lipsitz said.

The UK-U of L rivalry pervades all sports, not just basketball.

Of his own players, Lipsitz said, “Absolutely they feel it. And they indoctrinate the freshmen as soon as they get here.”

Bilas, who considers UK-U of L and Duke-UNC as college basketball’s two best rivalries, did not get it as a freshman. That’s something to ponder with Kentucky’s freshmen-dependent team. He was still somewhat perplexed as a junior when Duke won at UNC for the first time since 1966.

Bilas recalled his sophomore season capped by a 77-75 victory over No. 1 North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament semifinals. On the ride back to Durham after Duke lost to Maryland in the finals, the Duke players saw bumper stickers commemorating the victory over UNC.

“I remember how my teammates and I were kind of (ticked) off about it,” he said. “Wait a minute. They’re not putting up bumper stickers when they beat us. This needs to change. This is wrong.”

For Bilas, it was an eye-opening illustration of how fans might view a rivalry differently than players. The players had a greater expectation of winning.

“When I played at Duke, you had people say, and they were serious about it, ‘We can lose every other game, but if we beat Carolina, it’s been a successful season,’” Bilas said. “And you’d look at them and say, ‘No. It’s not, actually. That’s stupid. It would be a horrible failure.’

“You don’t want to say you don’t listen to the fans. The fans are incredibly important.”

That said, Bilas added, “I recall wanting to beat North Carolina because they were really good, and it says something good about you if you won that game.”

Kentucky and Louisville, in basketball, bring more than passion. This year, they bring together two ranked teams: No. 6 U of L and No. 18 UK. “The game would matter just by national rankings alone,” Bilas said.

But Kentucky and Louisville will also bring what they’ve always brought to make their rivalry join UNC-Duke as distinctive. Two long-standing traditions of success sharing the same rarefied air within the same state. As will be noted before, during and after the game, Kentucky (2012) and Louisville (2013) won the last two national championships.

“A lot of people say, ‘We hate the other guy, that’s why we have a great rivalry,’” Bilas said. “But to say, ‘We hate the other guy, and we hang banners,’ that’s pretty good.”

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